The tumult of the 1960s has been covered in a variety of ways in cinema, and yet the radical ideologies of political action groups like the New Left’s Students for a Democratic Society — SDS — and the Black Panther Party have never been given much screen time. Aaron Sorkin, the famed screenwriter behind “The Social Network” and “The West Wing,” approaches this lack of representation in his newest directorial project “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” which came to Netflix on Oct. 16.
The film covers the 1969 trial of eight anti-war political activists who were charged with conspiracy after protesting the presidential nomination of pro-Vietnam War candidate Hubert Humphrey at the Chicago Democratic National Convention the year before. It is made clear at the start of the film, however, that this is mostly a “political trial,” orchestrated by the Nixon Administration to publicly denounce the ideologies of these activists. The drama of the trial, which lasted almost six months, anchors the story, but it also dramatizes the protests themselves, which became incredibly violent as a result of police and military confrontations. As with most docu-dramas, narrative flair is often prioritized over hard commitment to historical accuracy in “Chicago 7,” but the story it crafts from this historical moment is an incredible showcase of what protest means in America, and the lengths that the powerful will go to to suppress calls for change.
Conflicts clearly arise in “The Trial of the Chicago 7” between the activists and the powers that be, but the defendants are also often very critical of each other. These clashes between normative culture and counterculture is where much of the humor — and much of the interesting political commentary — arises in the film. Sacha Baron Cohen brings incredible charm to the “hippie” side of the anti-war movement as Youth International Party co-founder Abbie Hoffman, while butting heads with the more traditional, uptight SDS leader Tom Hayden — played by Eddie Redmayne. Many scenes, full of snappy dialogue, show the two fighting about how to best act in the courtroom and, more generally, how to best change America. One early scene shows Hoffman making fun of Hayden’s choice to get a haircut for the trial, exemplifying the way he conforms to society’s expectations instead of opposing them. Although the defendants are from different political groups, there is always the overarching irony that the government who opposes them has lumped them all together as a homogenized group of radicals in the courtroom, with the prosecutor even explicitly describing them as “the Radical Left in different costumes” to the jurors.
An incredibly impactful theme of the film is the way “respectability” is leveraged as a means to degrade the messages of the radical activists. Judge Julius Hoffman, played by Frank Langella, constantly weaponizes the traditional respect that people are meant to show judges in a courtroom as a way to silence any opposition to his upsettingly biased positions. Bobby Seale, played by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, is constantly disrespected by the judge, forced to appear without legal representation and not allowed to speak on his own behalf, and yet he is expected to unconditionally “respect” Hoffman nonetheless. Judge Hoffman, as a symbol of American institutions as a whole, reminds viewers that the powerful can easily find reasons to ignore what the powerless have to say. Their tone is too angry. They are not dressed properly. They have no respect. All of these accusations are thrown at the Chicago 7 and Bobby Seale, and they are still thrown at political activists today who dare to be radical — the film serves as a grim reminder to us that such strict policing of “respect” only serves to maintain ruling ideologies.
The primary shortcoming of the film is its subtle attempts to de-radicalize its own message through Lead Prosecutor Richard Schultz, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Schultz is often portrayed as a centrist “good guy” who is simply caught up in the mayhem of this unfair case, instead of as an active proponent of the corrupt legal institution that he is representing in the trial. This is a federal employee who is actively trying to send these activists to prison, and yet he is often made out to be morally “better” than more explicitly corrupt characters like Judge Hoffman. This was probably an attempt by Sorkin to appeal to more conservative, establishment-minded viewers, but this characterization begins to trivialize the sweeping systemic criticisms of America that the defendants represent into individualistic matters of who is “good” and who is “bad”.
Still, this is not a film that glamorizes political institutions, and it's certainly not afraid to show how cruelly unfair they can be. Graphic imagery — such as that of police officers removing their name tags before assaulting protestors or violently detaining Bobby Seale for speaking out in court — is utilized to demonstrate the drastic lengths that the government will go to resist ideologies that it sees as “dangerous.” This is what makes a movie about an event that took place over 50 years ago feel so timely. We are in a political moment now, much like in the 1960s, where faulty decisions being made at the top of the government consistently have dire consequences for thousands of people’s lives. There is also still much unawareness about the inherent, severe inequities of American systems like the justice system, as seen in the massive scale of the Black Lives Matter protests. Making a film that looked at American institutions through rose-colored glasses in 2020 would definitely come off as dishonest, so Sorkin’s movement away from idealism in this film is a welcome change. “The Trial of the Chicago 7” is often very funny and even uplifting, but its most upsetting and poignant moments are those that remind us that 50 years has certainly not changed everything wrong with America.