On his Facebook page, Rennie Davis—one of “the Chicago 8” defendants—has been urging friends and acquaintances to see Aaron Sorkin’s new Netflix movie about the conspiracy trial that took place in an overheated federal courtroom and that began in the fall of 1969 and lasted until the winter of 1970, soon after Beat poet Allen Ginsberg took the witness stand and recited “Howl.” The film opened in select theaters on Sept. 25, 2020. It releases globally on Oct. 16, 2020, shortly before Election Day.
Davis has also explained, in three documents that have circulated widely among aging New Leftists, that he doesn’t like the way he’s portrayed—as a nerd—or how the other defendants are represented. The five other key defendants who were on trial—Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) and Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong) of the Yippies, Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) an SDSer, and pacifist David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch)—are dead, so we’ll never know how they’d feel about Sorkin’s courtroom drama, though we can imagine they’d have strong reservations about the ways that it deviates from the historical record, invents events that didn’t happen, and connects dots that were disconnected.
No one in his or her right mind insists that Hollywood movies have to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. No feature film that purports to be about the 1960s has ever fully captured the spirit and the everyday realities of the era. In The Trial of the Chicago 7, Aaron Sorkin, who created The West Wing—which I watched every week for years—offers his view of the conspiracy trial. Sorkin knows how to choreograph a large cast of characters, move them from foreground to background and return them to foreground all the while that he arranges them in twos and threes and in the whole ensemble.
He’s the creator and the director of The Trial of the Chicago 7. His imprints are all over the film, which aims to trace the political and cultural upheavals of an era that kicked off with optimism and a belief in the possibility of a utopian society, and that ended with a sense that the long overdue apocalypse had finally arrived. It was payback time in America.
Like most courtroom dramas, this one feels staged. There are set pieces and set speeches, heated arguments and fierce debates that sound rehearsed. Hoffman and Hayden are depicted as antagonistic, which they were in real life, though the clashes between them were driven as much by egos and lifestyles as by ideology.
The movie boasts a large and impressive cast. It takes Sorkin 15 minutes or so to introduce the major players, who include the judge, the jurors, the lawyers for the defense and for the prosecution, as well as the ornery defendants. After they’re assembled, Sorkin moves through the trial, from one electrifying moment to another. He includes flashbacks that aim to provide background and that show the riots that took place in the streets of Chicago in August 1968, during the Democratic National Convention. Sorkin includes real documentary footage. He apparently wants viewers to think of his film as a kind of documentary that takes liberties in order to entertain. The 57-page brochure that accompanies the film offers a timeline of events, from March 1965 when the U.S. escalated the War in Vietnam with Operation Rolling Thunder, to November 1972, when an appeals court overturned the convictions of the defendants.
Some of the key characters, including Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp), Tom Hayden, and Dave Dellinger evolve. They’re not the same at the end as they were at the beginning. The changes they go through are both subtle and believable. Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin remain rather static. From my perspective, Sacha Baron Cohen is miscast as Abbie, who was always acting in real life, which makes it especially challenging to play him.
Sorkin tries to be fair and balanced. He depicts Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) as a father who loves his children and as a citizen with a sense of dignity. Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella) is both mean spirited and a buffoon. During the actual trial, the defendants called him “Mr. Magoo,” after the cartoon character who came to the screen with the unmistakable voice of actor Jim Backus. The characters tend to dissolve into stick figures with long hair or short hair, button down shirts or hippie garb, raging activists or calculating bullies.
Hayden wants to reverse the tables and put the government on trial for the War in Vietnam. At one dramatic point in the courtroom, he begins to read the names of soldiers who died in combat. The judge tries to silence him, but he keeps going. That’s his big heroic moment. Yippie Hoffman wants the trial to be about the cultural revolution of the ’60s: long hair, marijuana, liberated sex, and rock ’n’ roll. No wonder he and Hayden clash on screen. They did the same in real life.
The real underlying issue during the trial, Sorkin suggests, was deportment. Near the start of the movie, then Attorney General John Mitchell (John Doman) says, “I want to bring back manners.” It’s unlikely that Mitchell actually said those exact words. But the sentiments were shared by a great many middle-aged, middle-class Americans who were shocked by the language, the dress, and the manners of the young, including their own daughters and sons. Sorkin shows that deportment was on trial in Julius Hoffman’s courtroom, along with common decency.
Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), the co-founder with Huey Newton of the Black Panther Party, comes across as an angry young African American with a nifty Afro. Judge Hoffman orders him bound and gagged, and severs his case from the other defendants. So the eight men on trial became seven. No women were indicted for conspiracy and crossing state lines to riot, though Hoffman and Rubin were both married to women who were involved with the trial. There are no major women characters in the film, though there is a woman named Bernardine who answers the phone in the Chicago office of the conspiracy. There’s also a gorgeous woman who works for the police and who deceives Rubin. Bill Kunstler, the lead attorney for the defendants, exhibits courage, but he also looks and acts like a nebbish. The Netflix costume department might have provided the actor who plays him with a newer, cooler suit.
Sorkin downplays the Jewish element in the trial. Kunstler was Jewish, as was his co-counsel Leonard Weinglass (Danny Flaherty), and so were the Yippie defendants, Rubin and Hoffman. Abbie spoke Yiddish at key moments to communicate his disdain for Julius Hoffman.
Rennie Davis thinks that The Trial of the Chicago 7 will spur audiences to go to the streets and protest against some of the same issues, including police malfeasance and abuse of power, that energized Yippies, SDSers. and pacifists like Dellinger. Davis gives more credit to the movie then it deserves. If you’re not part of Black Lives Matter or #MeToo, this movie is unlikely to motivate you to march, sit in, practice civil disobedience or clash with cops. Whether in Portland, Oregon, or Washington, D.C., 2020 is not 1968.
The mood of the film is somber, though Sacha Baron Cohen makes some attempts at humor. There are several moments that might elicit tears, as when Dellinger is found in contempt of court and his wife and son who are spectators stand up to affirm their love. I found some of the dialogue annoying, as for example when a young Black woman talks about “frying the police.” Please, Mr. Sorkin, the slogan was “Off the Pig.” But maybe you don’t remember. You were only 8 years old at the time of the trial. The characters frequently utter the word “fuck,” though Sorkin doesn’t borrow the actual incident when Hoffman wrote “Fuck” on his forehead and was arrested for doing so. It was the only time during the protests in Chicago that he was arrested.
I did not demonstrate in the summer of 1968—I was conducting research at the Bodleian Library in Oxford, England—and I never attended a single day of the conspiracy trial. (I was teaching.) At the time, I thought the drama in the courtroom was a distraction from the War in Vietnam and from the movement to end it. In hindsight it looks in many ways like the perfect culmination to the ’60s.
Jonah Raskin, professor emeritus at Sonoma State University, is the author of 14 books, including biographies of Jack London, Allen Ginsberg, and Abbie Hoffman.