How Hollywood Neuters the 60s: Sorkin’s “Trial of the Chicago 7” Sentences American Radicalism to Oblivion

Still from The Trial of the Chicago 7.

Memo From the Shop Floor of the Dream Factory


There is a short sequence in “The Trial of the Chicago 7” that neatly exemplifies the quality of the historical narrative of the whole “based-on-real-events” film.  To my mind, these brief scenes are a measure of the degree of authenticity we see in the whole picture.  

About 45 minutes into the picture, the camera roams through a nighttime scene, possibly “based upon” the actual Festival of Life in Lincoln Park, before the Democratic Convention of 1968.

A country-rock-ish group on stage in the bandshell performs an oddly apolitical pop ditty, “Just One Look.” 

The film cuts to a young woman sitting on the ground, painting a poster in almost total darkness.  We still hear the pop song as we —  

Cut to: Three young white women drop brassieres into a bonfire.  A large placard above them calls upon anyone who can read it to “SMASH MALE SUPREMACY.”  As the camera pans away, we catch a glimpse of a fourth young woman — African-American — dropping a bra into the fire.

The camera arrives at a second bonfire, burning in a large, used oil drum.  Four young men drop pieces of paper into the fire; behind them another young man holds up a large sign proclaiming “DRAFT CARD BURNING.” 

What’s wrong with these pictures? 

In 1968. it was a federal crime to destroy a draft card; it was even a federal crime not to carry a draft card, in public, at all times.  But, after dropping the cards in the fire, the four men stroll away, as if committing a federal felony were like dropping candy wrappers into a litter basket.  As with the bra-burning, the moment is completely without ceremony, without gravity, without witnesses.  And without any media coverage.  The four young men and the four young women could have been roasting marshmallows over a campfire.

These glaring historical inaccuracies aren’t just little academic flubs.  They trivialize and ridicule two important fronts in the movement for justice and peace: the draft resistance movement and women’s liberation.  The corporate media of that period consistently mis-represented these two campaigns within the larger movement by focusing on the burning of draft cards and the burning of bras, which were rare and minor events in the larger context of draft resistance and second-wave feminism.

Mainstream media always chose these distorting images, over content, and  “The Trial…” reproduces the same visual tactics, but sets those clichéd events in an even more misleading context.  In the near-total darkness of the park, there is no one to observe these political gestures, except the participants themselves, and even they treat their own actions as inconsequential and frivolous.

How important was the draft resistance movement?  Why does “Trial” treat it so lightly?

LBJ wasn’t dismissing it.  In the fall of 1967, President Lyndon Johnson was already deeply worried about the open refusal of many young men to co-operate with the Selective Service System, America’s mechanism for military conscription.  (He confided those concerns in a taped phone conversation with former President Dwight Eisenhower, shortly after the first major draft resistance events on October 16, 1968.)  

A second major nationwide event was scheduled for April 3, 1968.  In addition to the  thousands of young men who had already signaled their defiance of the draft, thousands more were expected to stand up and proclaim their resistance as well.  It’s no exaggeration to say that the imperial war machine was threatened with a crippling lack of “man”-power.  Draft resistance was called the “cutting edge” of the anti-war movement — it had a potent effect on the public at large: thousands of young men, many of them middle-class college students, were breaking the law of the land, and they were openly declaring that they would go to prison, before they would engage in the deadly game of kill-or-be-killed in Vietnam.

When President Johnson appeared on national television, on the night of March 31st, 1968, he was well aware of the impending event: thousands of young men, preparing to turn in their draft cards, which would then be turned over to the U.S. Justice Department, by members of the clergy, academics, writers and other notable public figures.  

Most Americans, including those in the peace movement, did not know what Johnson was preparing to announce that night.  They were shocked by his revelation that he would not seek another term in office. 

Behind the scenes in the Johnson administration, draft resistance had had a serious impact on the US ability to carry on with its aggression against the people of Vietnam.

“The Trial of the Chicago 7” reduces the history and the significance of the draft resistance movement to a trivial, perfunctory, unceremonious tossing of scraps of paper into a bonfire, by four anonymous actors, in the dead of night.  

The equally perfunctory burning of brassieres has the similar effect of reducing second wave feminism to a campfire party game.  Bra-burning was rare, as an organized protest action, and quickly abandoned by serious feminists who saw how the media sensationalized the act and used the image to trivialize and marginalize the movement.  

These two short scenes are emblematic of the way “Trial” treats the larger movement for justice and peace — a movement that shook the establishment in the ’60s and early ’70s.  “Trial,” either by design or careless accident, obliterates the radical potential of the period. 

Other historical misinformation in “Trial,” not justifiable even under dramatic license — 

The film begins with what looks like genuine documentary footage of a draft lottery drawing to determine “Who’s next” to be inducted into the US army, possibly to be shipped to Vietnam.  The first lottery drawing was not a lead-in to the riots in Chicago, not a lead-in to the trial that came as a result of the riots.  The first lottery drawing was conducted on December 1, 1969.  After the documentary montage, the movie begins with actors playing Renny Davis and Tom Hayden, recruiting students to come to Chicago “next month” — August 1968. The lottery drawings didn’t take place before the Convention; they were conducted fifteen months later. There is no dramatic license that would allow such a grotesque anachronism.  The documentary/fictional sequence scrambles history — and not in the service of a supposed “greater truth.”

The “Trial” filmmakers arbitrarily place two individuals at the moral center of the tale.  The picture encourages the audience, to feel, “I like these guys; these are the good guys; I agree with them.”  The first character is assistant prosecutor Richard Schultz who is, misleadingly, presented as a reasonable, honorable man who is reluctant to put the Chicago 8 on trial in the first place; the second is the earnest voice of reason on the other side, Tom Hayden.  It is Hayden who brings this whole, long legal proceeding to a moral crescendo by defiantly reading the names of US soldiers who have died in Vietnam — a stunning falsification of reality, enhanced by a dramatic shot of Richard Schultz rising to his feet in support of Hayden’s fictionalized behavior.

Historical accuracy is a nuisance when you have an inspiration for a grand operatic ending to a sputtering, daily soap-opera of an inconsequential courtroom drama.  But, just for the nit-pickering record, the real trial’s end was nothing like the movie’s raucus, yet uplifting (so the music tells us) finale.

It was co-defendant Dave Dellinger, not Tom Hayden, who began, months earlier in the trial, to read names war dead.  And, unlike Hayden’s movie-version recitation, Dellinger’s reading included the names of Vietnamese victims.  

In his final statement of the real trial, the real Dave Dellinger said, “[W]hatever happens to us, however unjustified, will be slight compared to what has happened already to the Vietnamese people….”  A truth-to-power bullseye, but not the cinematic zinger the filmmakers wanted to end with.

If you need a dramatic hook, exaggerate the minor tactical differences of opinion among the good guys.  And put your money on a far-out casting choice: Sacha Baron Cohen as “Abbie”

Instead of telling the story of eight political activists vs a corrupt, unjust legal system serving the Empire, the “Trial” filmmakers exaggerate and fabricate tactical disagreements among the defendants themselves.  As the two principal antagonists, they select the sober grassroots activist, Tom Hayden, and the madcap agitator, Abbie Hoffman, for conflict and contrast.  

Hoffman was a complicated man.  He was committed to the idea that an effective way to grow the peace movement would be to show young people that fighting the American Empire could be righteous, and it could be a lot of fun, as well.  A powerful way to strike a blow against the violent, racist, profit-driven establishment would be to laugh at it.  Resistance with humor could be a joyous act.  Hoffman believed that, or he wanted to believe that, with all his heart.

In front of media cameras and microphones, Hoffman could be brash or pugnacious or goofy.  In a brief encounter I had with him in the 1980s, he struck me as warm, thoughtful and a little shy.

How does “The Trial of the Chicago 7” represent him?  Casting Sacha Baron Cohen seems like one of those inspired gambles that filmmakers take without carefully assessing the odds.  Sometimes the bet pays off.  Cohen has enviable qualities as a performer.  He’s remarkably clever and he possesses impressive chutzpah.  The filmmakers must have seen him as the  perfect actor to represent this colorful personality from American history.  But the character of Abbie doesn’t seem to be a comfortable fit for Cohen.  Rather, the film gives us a calculating showman — a glib antagonist to spar with its naive, self-righteous Tom Hayden.  Hoffman could be silly and annoying, but he was not pedantic or condescending or cold, qualities which occasionally slip through in Cohen’s performance.  

Both Hoffman and Hayden are portrayed by British actors.  Cohen employs a broad, generic American East Coast accent (Abbie was born and raised in Worcester, Mass.).  And Eddie Redmayne adopts a more subtle Middle American sound.  The effort to erase his British accent may have robbed his Hayden of some of his vitality and spontaneity.  Both actors succeed in conveying the intelligence of their two historical subjects, but the central drama, over their strategic and philosophical differences feels exaggerated and forced.  Both characters were distorted to heighten the desired dramatic conflict between them.  

It’s striking, to one who lived through the period, to watch the movie transmogrify Tom Hayden from a forthright American radical into a respectable liberal who might be fairly comfortable in the Democratic Party establishment.  It’s ironic that Hayden actually ended his days in that establishment — as a ferocious advocate for Hilary Clinton in 2016.  I get the feeling as I watch the movie that that Hayden is the one the filmmakers want him to have been, back in ‘68.  He and prosecutor Schultz, from “the other side,” are our decent, good-guy moral guides along the middle path between equally reprehensible political extremes.

The film is offensive and insulting in other ways.  In a series of superficial, snappy character introductions, it presents Bobby Seale, strutting through a Panther office, as a fast-talking, cliché-spouting blowhard.   

But the single greatest grievance I have with the picture is its portrayal of Dave Dellinger.  His deep moral convictions, his resourcefulness and statesmanship in the art of organizing, his tireless work behind the scenes made him, in my opinion, stand head and shoulders above everyone else in that courtroom.  But John Carroll Lynch, a fine actor, is seriously miscast as Dellinger, and the writing of Dellinger’s character painfully diminishes one of the unsung heroes of the ‘60s.  And it’s hard to believe, but these capable filmmakers actually employ one of the tiredest clichés in TV or movies: Dellinger, the pacifist, loses his self-control (at 1 hour and 35 minutes) and assaults a courtroom bailiff.  

Travesty – n. A burlesque translation or imitation; a grotesque parody or likeness.

The original Chicago 8, then Chicago 7, trial was a waste of our time and our energy.  I didn’t see at the time that anything of moral or political significance came out of it.  And it wasn’t even good theatre.  Among all the momentous events unfolding in that era, the real trial was a clumsy sideshow.  

The movie “Trial” is a travesty of a sideshow.

But I’m afraid it does a pretty effective job of discouraging younger generations from exploring the radical possibilities for meaningful change which came to light in that tumultuous era.

Next, “Hollywood Neuters the ‘60s,” Part 2: Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali and Black Panther Fred Hampton lose their heroic stature, and their humanity, in “One Night in Miami ….” and “Judas and the Black Messiah.”