If we internalize the language and imagery of the pigs, we will forever be fucked.
– Abbie Hoffman, introduction to 50th anniversary edition of Steal This Book
1968. It was the best of times; it was the worst of times — love’s feral moans and Molotov cocktails were in the air — but what the dickens was Aaron Sorkin thinking? What is the point of his new film The Trial of the Chicago 7? Who’s the tahgit mahkit? as Abbie would say. Why now?
The Netflix film, written and directed by Aaron Sorkin, stars Sacha Baron Cohen (Abbie Hoffman), Jeremy Strong (Jerry Rubin), Alex Sharp (Rennie Davis), Eddie Redmayne (Tom Hayden), John Carroll Lynch (David Dellinger), Danny Flaherty (John Froines), Noah Robbins (Lee Weiner), Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (Bobby Seale), Frank Langella (Judge Julius Hoffman), and Michael Keaton (Ramsay Clark).
Chicago 7 begins with a series of historical segues and cast flashes designed to introduce the national preoccupation with violence leading up to the intended peaceful protests at the DNC, Chicago, 1968. LBJ announces a doubling of the Vietnam draft for men aged 18-24; MLK quavers, “If America’s soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read, ‘Vietnam’”; MLK’s assassinated; RFK’s assassinated; a sober, coat-and-tie clad SDS group listens to Renee Davis and Tom Hayden plan out the Chicago DNC protest; Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin rouse distressed-clothed hippies with the carnivalesque levity and the promise of easy sex ahead; MOBE leader David Dellinger stresses “nonviolence’; and Bobby Seale sneers, “Fry the pigs!” (but don’t take that out of context). These are followed by quick-cut plans — Chicago’s authorities, youthful protesters — in back-and-forth segues, ending with Walter Cronkite glumly telling the nation: “The Democratic Convention is about to begin in a police state. There just doesn’t seem to be any other way to say it.”
Seven minutes in, bang, the movie title appears. It’s early 1969, we’re in Washington, DC, Attorney General John Mitchell of the newly-inaugurated Nixon administration, wants federal prosecutors Thomas Foran and Richard Schultz to indict the leaders of the Chicago protests for conspiring to cross state lines with the intent to incite rioting, something Schultz regards as pointless, as Ramsey Clark, LBJ’s DOJ chief, had already concluded that such charges wouldn’t stand in court. Mitchell says, fuck Clark, “he gave me the finger on the way out,” indict them anyway on the civil rights-denying Rap Brown Law, “I deem these shitty little fairies to be a threat to national security.” Thus begins the Nixon era, with a declaration of war on the counterculture. For petty, vindictive reasons, Sorkin implies.
This scene is the product of creative non-fiction — something happened to bring about the indictments, but what? Was Schultz consulted about this meeting? No, apparently not. There’s no record that Ramsay Clark ever gave the finger to John Mitchell. But Sorkin might have consulted Larry Sloman’s Steal This Dream, the oral biography of Abbie, in which Ramsay Clark describes an incident of police brutality in Chicago and states what he believes led to the indictments. Check it out; it’s free; no need to steal it this time. (Frankly, I think this book would make a great movie. Are the Coen brothers busy?)
The Question the viewer is presented with as Sorkin brings us into the US District courtroom in the spring of ‘69, past protesters chanting, “The whole world is watching,” is:
Who started the 1968 Chicago DNC riots, the protesters or the police?
Spoiler Alert! The next couple of hours are mostly a condensation of courtroom routine lasting the several months of the trial. The lighting is subdued, apparently to reflect the mood of the proceedings and the symbolic reflection of American values on trial. Language is stripped down, with much space extended between the judge, Julius Hofmann, and members of the Defense and Prosecutors. After the film’s opening pace, the slow-downed judicial process seems amplified. It’s not chippy and snap-edited like a hip Boston Legal episode, with amazing articulations of legal dilemmas (which is fine, the Scopes trial rocked), but slow, plodding, and fucking boring, the way most long trials are. Verisimilitude is all fine and dandy — but to use it to amplify the ennui of long trials! Tsk-tsk.
If only that was all that had gone missing from the film. Chicago 7 reminds me of two other post-9/11, post-Truth films that stuck in my craw — Zero Dark Thirty and the more recent Shirley. The former, based on the filmmakers having been made privy to classified Obama White House documents about the raid to capture bin Laden, and the glorified depiction of “enhanced interrogation” in the film (later found to be torture by a Senate sub-committee report in 2014), attempted to sway viewers to see the film as “journalistic,” when the eventual Oscar-winning film was justifiably challenged as propaganda. ZDT wasn’t especially effective in apprising us of what actually happened that night in Abbottabad.
Shirley was based on a “creative non-fiction” biography of horror author Shirley Jackson by Susan Scarf Merrell, but sinks into unhelpful fiction in the film (screenplay co-written by Merrill), when the opening two-minutes of the film sees the book’s lead character, Rose, on a train with Fred, her boyfriend, getting turned on by the horrific finish of “The Lottery” in the New Yorker magazine. Rose leads Fred back-train and they proceed to get their jolly rocks off. Call me a nitwit, but scratch my head as I might, unless it was a subliminal signal of Rose’s later spoiler alert with Shirley, I don’t see the Why of this scene (not in the book) It would be interesting to hear Merrell explain this off-the-rails departure from her book.
This brings us back to the three questions with which I started: What’s the point of Chicago 7? Who’s the market? And why now?
Let’s start with the Point. Is this film about the infamous trial, which saw flavors of Constitutionally-protected resistance to the war — violent (Seale), intellectual (Hayden), spiritual (Dellenger), theatrical (Hoffman, Rubin) — get railroaded by way of the Rap Brown law as subversive expressions under the new Nixon regime? Nixon doesn’t really figure in this film at all. Though his Justice Department not only brought these charges against the 8 (7), Nixon’s DoJ also illegally wiretapped the lawyers of the defendants. Such wiretapping has a lot of resonance for our contemporary surveillance state, and should have featured prominently in any film in which a character (Abbie) declares, “We are being tried for our thoughts.” No emphasis in the film.
Similarly, though narcs who helped get the 8 (7) indicted are cross-examined on the stand in the film, no mention of COINTELPRO and the sliminess of other undercover actions against civilians is raised. The H. Rap Brown Law, the basis of the indictment, after its first mention by Sorkin’s Mitchell in the film, is not further explored, despite its precedent-setting use at the trial — its racial motivation is that obvious. It’s a felony carrying a 10-year sentence — and, ironically, a potential loss of voting rights. In addition, in the early minutes of the film, as Bobby Seale is readying to leave Oakland for Chicago, Sorkin has a female Black Panther offer him a pistol (he declines) — a clear violation of Rap Brown. Perplexing exclusion/inclusion.
No mention either of the serious reasonableness of 18-21 year old draftees being enraged by being sent against their wills to fight in a jungle war over ideology rather than any real national threat, and yet were not deemed, by the State, to be ready to vote, even if they made it back from Nam. In addition, the age group saw its Civil Rights — freedom of expression, for instance — curtailed or deeply pressured by the State, and nobody seemed to hate the young more than Nixon. (It’s still true today: Greg Palast reckons that voter disenfranchisement is mostly against Blacks and College-aged students, the former because they want to express their freedom, the latter because they want to vote independently of the Lesser Evil regime). This goes to motivation your honor.
Sorkin makes no mention of Hubert Humphrey as the shoo-in nominee for the Democrats, following LBJ’s sudden decision to not seek re-election and Bobby Kennedy’s murder. Draft age protesters were unhappy to have a choice between right-wing Nixon and a corporate Dem who’d not faced any debates, and not had his policies pressured by the real Left. The draft would continue. There would be more counter-counterculture, more pointless deaths of young, mostly poor people in Nam. Unless, of course, they went un-American and sought ‘pussy’ conscientious objector status — or ran to Canad singing Guess Who songs.
This, too, goes to motivation, your honor.
Sorkin asks: Who started the riots, the cops or the protesters? Who gives a shit Aaron if you can’t even bring in some crucial period information to set up the trial properly. (Even George Clooney condescends to Sorkin on his approach.) And while we’re at, did Sorkin know or care that 8 cops were indicted at the same time — although, that was just for beating the snot out of some reporters, so….? (Check out Dan Rather taking one for the team.) Did Sorkin even attempt to have a go at reading Chicago’s own internal investigation report that affirmed what most people knew: The Cops started the riot? This would have been a great angle of approach, too. Going out on a limb, but some MSM footage, or reenactment of the riots by hungry extras, might have provided emotional depth to the story. Mightn’t you have read a pertinent Village Voice piece on what happened?
Who’s the market, Sorkie? Millennials, with their minds so spun out by the hivemindedness of their Internet activities that a lot of them probably can’t tell the difference between their experiences and what they read online and opined about, quickly, moments ago? Because your film representation of the times sure doesn’t hold up to my memories and — those failing me in my dotage — links to actual news reports and primary documents readily available online. For free. If it was meant to tap into the purses of lefties wringing their hands in torment over the treatment of Julian Assange and Edward Snowden, and many et als (but who won’t get off their hand-arses to write to the heroes), but who want to vibe in on the Woke as presented by Sorkie and Netflix, all popcorned up, as if Democracy were now an entertainment, then Fuck You.
Probably the worst aspect of the film is the loooong courtroom drama. For the first time, I was glad I had a prostate issue requiring my quick removal from the den to the toilet. I was mystified by the screenplay dialogue that made shit up when so much free and often colorful testimony is available and packaged for readers. See, for instance, the reader-friendly site, famous-trials.com, which is beautifully laid out. I almost donated. I’m totally peeved by the characterizations, especially of Abbie and Jerry, who you make out to be jackasses — even with their signature trial stunt where they came to court one day dressed up in judges robes, only to be told to disrobe, revealing cops uniforms underneath, that you set up in the film to seem juvenile, a few claps, then silence, they sit — you fucker.
In the one scene of the film that he appeared for any length of time, you made Allen Ginsberg look like a retard, mumbling a mantra. That’s the man whose tireless pleaful exertions to the Swedes led to Bob Dylan finally getting the Nobel prize in literature he deserved. He could have been pictured howling like a madman and that would have been an improvement. But, seriously, Sorkin, given the lame witnesses you called to the film’s witness stand, it’s incomprehensible to me that you couldn’t have tapped the likes of more colorful characters who did appear and said interesting and germaine things. Judy Collins testified, Ginsberg testified, Norman Mailer testified — all said stuff related to the mindset of the planners before they came to Chicago.
Take Judy Collins’s testimony. Prickly Judge Hoffman wouldn’t allow her to sing one of her great folk songs, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” He stops her when she begins:
THE WITNESS: That’s what I do.
THE COURT: And that has no place in a United States District Court. We are not here to be entertained, sir. We are trying a very important case.
MR. KUNSTLER: This song is not an entertainment, your Honor. This is a song of peace, and what happens to young men and women during wartime.
THE COURT: I forbid her from singing during the trial. I will not permit singing in this Courtroom.
MR. KUNSTLER: Why not, your Honor? What’s wrong with singing?
There’s dramatic tension, politics, characterization, music of the times. The defense counselor, WilliamKunstler, ends up being handed 22 counts of contempt of court. And none of it is screenplay creative non-fiction. Judy goes on to recite the whole song instead, as if it were a poem, which it is. And she answers Kunstler’s question regarding Abbie’s state of mind prior to Chicago:
THE WITNESS: There was nothing violent about anything that went on in the preparations on our side for this Convention. We were provoked.
Did that gem of a scene get into the movie about the trial? No, of course not.
What about the marvelous testimony of Allen Ginsberg? At one point he’s asked to explain what a “be-in” is (as opposed to a sit-in) and there’s jocund confusion:
THE COURT: Just a minute I am not sure how you spell the be-in.
MR. WEINGLASS: B-E I-N, I believe, be-in.
THE WITNESS: Human be-in.
THE COURT: I really can’t pass on the validity of the objection because I don’t understand the question.
MR. WEINGLASS: I asked him to explain what a be-in was.
MR. FORAN: I would love to know also but I don’t think it has anything to do with this lawsuit.
THE COURT I will over the objection of the Government, tell what a be-in is.
THE WITNESS: A gathering-together of younger people aware of the planetary fate that we are all sitting in the middle of, imbued with a new consciousness, a new kind of society involving prayer, music, and spiritual life together rather than competition, acquisition and war.
It gets even better, because Ginsberg is so natural and tuned-in:
MR. WEINGLASS: Mr. Ginsberg, do you recall anything else that Mr. Rubin said to you in the course of that telephone conversation?
THE WITNESS: Yes, he said that he thought it would be interesting if we could get up little schools like ecology schools, music schools, political schools, schools about the Vietnam war, schools with yogis.
He asked if I could contact [William] Burroughs and ask Burroughs to come to teach nonverbal, nonconceptual feeling states. [And, I’m thinking: bow and arrow lessons.]
MR. WEINGLASS: Now you indicated a school of ecology. Could you explain to the Court and jury what that is?
THE WITNESS: Ecology is the interrelation of all the living forms on the surface of the planet involving the food chain—that is to say, whales eat plankton: larger fishes eat smaller fish, octopus or squid eat shellfish which eat plankton; human beings eat the shellfish or squid or smaller fish which eat the smaller tiny microorganisms
MR. FORAN: That is enough, your Honor.
THE COURT: Yes. We all have a clear idea of what ecology is.
Ecology, Climate Change, n’est ce pas? Goes to relevance, your honor. Plus Ginsberg said Abbie and Jerry’s Festival of Life contained no plans for violence. Even Pigasus, the oinker they nominated to run for president during the festival, was spared in the end, retiring to a farm with his Mrs. and a piglet, I’m told. A Yippie Manifesto was available to read, if you wanted a taste of their mindset.
MR. KUNSTLER: I call your attention to the next day, Wednesday, the twenty-eighth of August, between 3:30 and 4:00 P.m. approximately. Do you know where you were then?
THE WITNESS: Yes, I was in Grant Park. I felt ashamed of myself for not speaking, and I, therefore, went up to the platform and I asked Mr. Dellinger if I could speak, and he then very happily said, “Yes, of course.”
MR. KUNSTLER: Can you state what you did say on Wednesday in Grant Park?
THE WITNESS: I merely said to the people who were there that I thought they were possessed of beauty, and that I was not going to march with them because I had to write this piece. And they all said, “Write, Baby.” That is what they said from the crowd.
Write on, brother! And he did, and he made deadline.
And Timothy Leary and Jesse Jackson, and others, testified as to mind set, because remember, Aaron, the trial was about their thoughts. It could have been a rekindling of the Festival of Life, but you toned it down, you clowned around factual details. What was with that muthafuckin’ Fred Hampton scene in the courtroom — that never happened in real life! And what was up with token defendants Lee Weiner and John Froines exchanging:
Froines: …for the life of me, I can’t figure out what the two of us are doin’ here.
Weiner: I feel exactly the same way, but this is the Academy Awards of protests, and as far as I’m concerned it’s an honor just to be nominated.
Huh? (He looks around for cues.) Was that in the court transcripts? Or were you priming the academy pump, Aaron?
There’s so much you could have done to make it a better movie — even adding something token, since you were making shit up anyway, like pointing out the curiosity of how two LBJ decisions led to Kennedys being killed (and, come to think of it, where was LBJ’s mindset on the night of Chappaquiddick? Does it have an alibi?). Just for kix, why not show sell-out Jerry Rubin in the end, after becoming a Wall Street broker, getting run over jaywalking? Karma sucks. You could have Abbie committing suicide to a vision of you casting Borat to play him, flaunting his new Boston accent (what range!), and showing his cardboard abilities (the “shitty little fairy” recalled the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz.)
I don’t like this new trend toward “journalistic” and “creative non-fiction” films, such postmod, post-Truth laxity of the real is partly responsible for the accusations we lob at each other online all the time now — “You’re a conspiracy theorist” generally from the Left, “That’s Fake News,” generally from the Right, and all of us turning into Turd Blossoms intent on creating alternative realities. (I even cringed when the Yippie Manifesto referred to “create our own reality,” which gave me the icky feeling Karl Rove had co-opted Abbie. That’s what the Right Wing does. Look at the Democratic Party.)
There are better film depictions of the era out there. For instance, Chicago 10 is an upbeat combination of animation, news footage, and plot played out based almost exclusively on the trial transcripts that celebrates humanity and activism, and has aesthetic appeal, unlike the undelivered goods of a movie that proposes to be about “thought on trial.” Chicago 10 is available free in its entirety on YouTube (until, of course, the producers of Chicago 7 have it taken down to reduce competition). There are excellent collected free resources available, Steal This Dream (mentioned above) and the great collection of trial transcripts put together at Famous Trials by Professor Douglas O. Linder. Watch the two films; you’ll easily see which of them has a superior retelling of events and courtroom testimony.