As Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of The Chicago 7 recounts events in the United States in 1968 and 1969, it tells a very American story about the Vietnam War and the counterculture movement. And yet, the ideas highlighted in the film about the importance of dissent and the imperative to stand up against injustice, especially when committed by the government, have universal resonance.
The Netflix original film is based on the trial of eight activists of various political persuasions who had gathered in Chicago with thousands of others in August 1968 to protest against the Democratic National Convention. The protesters were part of the larger anti-Vietnam War movement that was roiling America in the late 1960s. The American President, the Democrat Lyndon B Johnson, was being intensely criticised for persisting with an increasingly meaningless war, one that was claiming the lives of numerous young American soldiers.
On August 28, 1968, violence broke out during a face-off between protesters and the Chicago police. In 1969, a new American president was sworn in – the Republican Richard Nixon. Under him, the Justice Department set out to make an example of the eight activists arrested for allegedly inciting the violence.
The trial unfolded in 1969 before a deeply prejudiced judge, Julius Hoffman. One of the eight defendants, Black Panther Party co-founder Bobby Seale, came in for particularly harsh treatment from Hoffman – to the extent that he was bound and gagged during the trial. A mistrial for Seale was later declared, bringing down the number of defendants to seven.
Sorkin’s screenplay, while exercising considerable dramatic licence, revisits key episodes from the court proceedings. The heavyweight cast brilliantly enacts a period drama that is clearly talking to the present. In the rear-view mirror of Sorkin’s imagination are present-day concerns about police action in America against Black Lives Matter participants, protestors clashing with white nationalists, and politically aware students who march in the streets to claim their right as citizens.
Indian viewers who have been following the trials of the poets, lawyers and human rights defenders arrested in the Bhima-Koregaon and the Delhi riots cases are likely to be moved by the declaration of one of the Chicago 7 defendants: “We’re not going to jail because of what we did, we’re going to jail because of who we are.”
Sorkin’s dexterity with language and skill for creating tension through repartee are on ample display throughout the movie. Oscar nods for direction and writing are in order for the man behind The West Wing and The Social Network.
Here are some of the zingiest lines from The Trial of The Chicago 7. Much of the politically astute dialogue is by the character played by Sacha Baron Cohen, who delivers a performance that is similarly destined for awards glory.
‘The Rap Brown law was created by Southern whites in Congress to limit the free speech of Black activists – civil rights activists.’
Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Richard Schultz, the public prosecutor who is handed a job he doesn’t quite want. The clean-cut lawyer initially objects to the law under which charges have been framed against the defendants – that they crossed state lines to incite violence in Chicago. Schultz recognises the injustice built into the so-called Rap Brown law, but nevertheless suits up to do the job he is paid to do.
‘Police don’t start riots.’
John Mitchell, the vindictive Attorney General who appoints Richard Schultz, is not the only character who believes that lying is the state’s prerogative.
‘This is the Academy Awards of protests and as far as I’m concerned, it’s an honour just to be nominated.’
Noah Robbins plays one of the Chicago 7, Lee Weiner. He provides the defence with an important breakthrough later in the trial – one that Judge Hoffman keeps away from the jury because the case would collapse if the truth came out.
‘There are eight of us here. There are signs out there that read “Free the Chicago 7”. I’m not with them. And speaking frankly the US attorney wanted a Negro defendant to scare the jury. I was thrown in to make the group look scarier.’
The Black Panther activist Bobby Seale, played by Yahya Abtul-Mateen II, has the worst time in court, Singled out for being Black and without legal representation for the most part, Seale gives as good as he gets.
‘I don’t have time for cultural revolution. It distracts from actual revolution.’
Tom Hayden, played by Eddie Redmayne, is the most political and careful among the group, for which he gets flak from his comrades. His chief detractor is Abbie Hoffman, who reminds him that…
‘It’s a revolution, Tom. We may have to hurt somebody’s feelings.’
British comic savant Sacha Baron Cohen steals the show as the seemingly flaky but actually very sharp Abbie Hoffman, the co-founder of the Young International Party (also known as the “Yippies”). Abbie Hoffman and fellow Yippie Jerry Rubin (played by Jeremy Strong) treat the trial as the circus that it is, mocking the judge ever so often.
‘This is a political trial. This was already decided for us.’
Abbie Hoffman again, reminding the defence lawyer about what is at stake – the Nixon administration’s war on people it deems “petulant and dangerous, rebels without jobs”.
‘When we walked in this morning, they were chanting that the whole world is watching. If we leave here without saying anything about why we came in the first place, it’ll be heartbreaking.’
Jerry Rubin has a bruising encounter or two with police brutality, and his hostility towards authority frequently spills out in the courtroom.
‘Is this prosecution politically motivated?’
The always-amazing Mark Rylance, playing the main defence lawyer William Kunstler, is a candidate for a best supporting actor Oscar. Kunstler works hard both on keeping his bickering flock together and standing up to Judge Hoffman’s increasing perversity.
‘Mr Kunstler, I have lived a very long time and you are the first person ever to suggest that I have discriminated against a Black man.’
Judge Julius Hoffman, played by Frank Langella, taking his place in the gallery of movie villains, one poisonous statement at a time. Also by Judge Hoffman, “There will be order!”
Hoffman takes his duties very seriously and sets out to crush the values underpinning the counterculture movement. The movie skips some of his more dastardly acts, such as ordering hair-cuts for the shaggy-haired defendants.
‘I’ve never been on trial for my thoughts before.’
Abbie Hoffman crystallises the motivation behind the trial during his deposition. His comment indicts the Orwellian thought police that characterises legitimate protest as anarchy – an observation by Sorkin that resonates in any country that seeks to prosecute protesters and political prisoners as traitors.
When asked by Richard Schultz, “Do you have contempt for your government,” Hoffman powerfully responds, “I tell you, it’s nothing compared to the contempt my government has for me.” Who is really on trial here?