Editor’s Note: In time for Memorial Day reflection, a review of the 2020 film that dramatized the Nixon administration’s attempt to discredit the anti-Vietnam war movement by prosecuting some its most prominent leftist leaders. “Trial” received multiple major Academy Award nominations, for Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay (Aaron Sorkin), Best Supporting Actor (Sacha Baron Cohen), Best Original Song (“Hear My Voice”/Celeste), as well as editing and cinematography nods. Winning only for Best Original Screenplay, “The Trial of the Chicago 7” is available to stream on Netflix.
1968 was a hell of a year for this country! In January, North Korea captured a U. S. ship (the Pueblo), and North Vietnam launched the Tet Offensive, targeting American and South Vietnamese troops. Martin Luther King was assassinated in April and, two months later, Robert Kennedy was gunned down. In September Boeing unveiled the 747 jumbo jet, which made air travel available to everyone, and, in December, Apollo 8 became the first manned space flight to orbit the moon. U.S. athletes first raised their fists in an expression of Black Power at the Olympics in October, and a month later Star Trek startled the country with the first televised broadcast of an interracial kiss (Captain Kirk and Lieutenant Uhura—whose embrace was made possible by alien telekinetics). It was a monumental year dominated by violence, race, and, arguably, technological progress. (Thanks, CNN, for the compilation!)
It was also an election year, and President Lyndon B. Johnson had rocked the political world on March 31 by announcing that he was not going to seek re-election. Analysts are still trying to figure out exactly why he made that decision, and one contributing factor may have been personal health issues. But a large part had to do with Johnson’s perception that, in a country seriously divided over the merits of the Vietnam war—a war that he had significantly escalated—he might be defeated in important primaries by anti-war candidates Robert F. Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy.
In August of that year, the two parties had their conventions. The Republicans nominated Richard Nixon in early August. Nixon had campaigned largely on a promise to restore “law and order” to a nation that had been wracked by racial violence and increasing opposition to the war on the other side of the globe. He coined the term “the silent majority” to characterize his voters.
After Johnson withdrew from the race, the Democrats split into two major factions: the anti-war supporters of Eugene McCarthy and the more rank-and-file supporters of Johnson’s vice president Hubert Humphrey. The Democratic convention, held later in August, in Chicago, promised to be fiercely contested.
And it was, both inside the convention hall and outside. Inside, the establishment Democrats ended up nominating Humphrey, as expected, over the strenuous objections of anti-war candidates and their supporters. Humphrey went on to lose the election to Nixon, in part, because the segregationist George Wallace managed to siphon off several Southern states that would normally have gone Democratic. Wallace had entered the race mostly to oppose Johnson’s Voting Rights Act, which had begun to correct the black-white power structure imbalance in those southern states.
So, in 1968, we had a country torn by an extremely unpopular war, racial strife and political parties that weren’t fully responsive to a major group of dissatisfied voters. Young people were being drafted to fight, and die, in a war halfway around the globe whose objectives were no longer clear. It isn’t too surprising that the conflict spilled outside of the convention hall and onto the streets of Chicago.
And that’s where “The Trial of the Chicago 7” begins. In a superbly executed montage (that I suspect was the reason for the movie’s Academy Award nomination for Best Film Editing), we see scenes of unrelated groups of people all preparing to go to Chicago to make their voices heard. They weren’t delegates in the political process, so they chose the only avenue of opposition available: protesting in the streets. The first 15 minutes of this movie are not overshadowed by the masterfully written and acted trial scenes; indeed, they enrich our understanding of the major characters and the competing motivations that sent them to Chicago.
Tom Hayden and Rennie Davis, leaders of the Students for a Democratic Society, believed that the government had ignored the will of the people and only a political revolution could repair the country’s moral compass. Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, founders of the Youth International Party (or Yippies), adopted a more cynical position. The Yippies felt that only a radical “cultural” revolution could shake up social conventions and steer the country in the correct direction. Bobby Seale and Fred Hampton, leaders of the Black Panthers, had much bigger grievances. They believed that civil rights and economic justice was their battleground, but did agree that Seale should go Chicago, if only to stay for four hours to deliver one speech. Conscientious objector David Dellinger simply wanted a platform to advocate against violence of any kind. And so, tens of thousands of mostly young people—those most directly affected by the draft—converged on Chicago to let the power structure know that there were other voices demanding to be heard and other opinions on what the Democratic Party should stand for.
It is generally accepted that violence that erupted during the street protests at the convention was due to police “overreaction’ to the demonstrators. Some historians have called it a “police riot.” Blood was spilled on both sides, but demonstrators took the brunt.
True to Nixon’s campaign promises to restore “law and order, his administration sought to make a cautionary example of eight individuals who were leaders and participants in the Chicago demonstrations by charging them with federal crimes, including conspiracy. The movie’s re-creation of the infamous trial of the “Chicago 7,” as the defendants were dubbed by the media, makes for a compelling legal drama. (Note: there were originally eight defendants, but Bobby Seale’s case was ultimately severed. Seale’s insistence on his right to a separate trial is a suspenseful sidebar in the movie.)
I was alive in 1968 and perhaps more aware than the typical American teenager. I turned 17 late in the year and was enjoying my high school years. I had moved to a booming Colorado town from California the year before and was doing extremely well in school. I was a leader of the new speech/debate club and brought home the school’s first trophy in extemporaneous speech. I read all the news magazines and watched TV news religiously. I understood something about current events and was starting to develop a political conscience. It was an important and fast-moving year, and, since my political sensibilities were being formed, I have a perspective on the events surrounding this movie that may not be available to younger critics.
The movie makes a critical error in fact that, even granting Sorkin fictional license, is hard to square away from a personal viewpoint. The film suggests that, from the war’s outset, the draft was run by a lottery, and that a young man’s future and fate was determined by the draw of a lottery balls imprinted with all the days of the year. The order in which your birthdate was drawn determined your likelihood to be drafted.
But, in 1968, there was no draft lottery. The old draft system, which relied primarily on evaluation of draftees by community boards, snagged socially unconnected or poorer people, often Black or other minorities, to fight the wars that rich, white men decided were appropriate. The movie’s muddying of history is important, because the lottery exposed upper middle-class white boys, like myself, to the risk of being drafted that was much less likely under the old system. The lottery wasn’t implemented until more than a year after the Chicago riots, in December 1969.
My personal experience with the lottery informs my discomfort with this historical inaccuracy. The year I was eligible to be included in the lottery, my birth date was drawn in 11th place, meaning that I was pretty certain to be drafted and to be sent to Vietnam to fight. My parents, especially my mother, undertook all kinds of efforts to prevent my conscription. She persuaded my father, who was more than a little reluctant, to take me to a “draft attorney,” a lawyer who specialized in helping young people beat the draft. I was counseled about filing Conscientious Objector forms, establishing anti-war credentials and various other legal machinations to avoid the draft.
In the end, I received one of the very last student deferments ever issued—basically, a moratorium on being drafted until after I had finished college. The war was finally over by the time I earned my degree, so I ended up avoiding the draft and quite possibly being killed. Others were not nearly so lucky. Even if inductees escaped death, they suffered exposure to horrors that human beings just shouldn’t have to experience.
The lottery’s intended purpose of making conscription more random and therefore fair had an unforeseen consequence of fueling opposition to the Vietnam war. By increasing the risk exposure of middle- and upper middle-class young men, their families turned against a war that, until then, hadn’t affect their lives nearly as much.
Getting this history right would have served to emphasize the heroism of the Chicago 7 in railing against the war machine at a time when most Americans still supported our military engagement in southeast Asia. Anti-war protestors were widely viewed in 1968 as left-wing fanatics. That was my family’s position and it was, I admit with no small amount of remorse, also my position. We were members of Nixon’s “silent majority” and thought the protestors were anti-American, unpatriotic and deserved whatever the cops could unload on them.
As, I understand now, we were on the wrong side of history!
The protestors were right, and the war was indeed wrong (as even Nixon decided several years later.). Tens of thousands of young Americans died, needlessly, as it turns out, and our government was as corrupt and complicit as the protestors portrayed it to be. I have come around to their position and no longer believe that “the system” works for anyone’s benefit except those at the top who will do whatever is necessary to manipulate those of us at the bottom.
These understandings came later, however.
Still, I would advise viewers to take Sorkin’s premise that the trial was simply an act of retribution against the left and a means of embarrassing the Democratic Party with a grain of salt. The Justice Department, under Attorney General George Mitchell, pursued the case for various legal and political reasons. These justifications did not (spoiler alert for those younger than 50) prevail at the trial or stand the test of time, but they appeared to the silent majority to be valid at the time. Aaron Sorkin, who wrote and directed “Trial,” was still in diapers in the late 1960s; I can’t expect him to frame these events in the same way I do. Simply put, the political conflicts—on the street and in the courtroom—were very real back then and their legitimacy not as obviously one-sided as his movie suggests.
Dramatizing the conflicting views held among the seven protagonists is where the movie really shines. The back and forth between Tom Hayden, Abbie Hoffman, Bobby Seale and, to a lesser extent, David Dellinger reveals their distinct characters, complex thought processes and significant philosophical differences. As written by Sorkin (whose original script was judged the year’s best by the Academy), the interplay between Tom Hayden and Abbie Hoffman is more than a personality conflict; it embodies two differing intellectual arguments about how societies change. Sorkin’s script has been criticized by some as “too polished,” that, in real life, people don’t think as quickly as the movie’s defendants or express themselves as eloquently, especially when under duress. While that criticism is probably correct, remember that movies are supposed to distill experience, so a degree of poetic license can be allowed.
I am not normally a fan of Sacha Baron Cohen, best known for playing Borat, a TV reporter from a mythical “Stan” country who comes to America and, through misunderstanding our mores, exposes our cultural idiocies. I find his humor sophomoric and sometimes just plain gross. So, I was pleasantly surprised by his nuanced performance of Yippie Abbie Hoffman. Abetted by Sorkin’s script, Cohen as Hoffman exhibits an intelligence that I didn’t know he possessed. The movie might be worth watching for Cohen’s performance alone. He deserved the nomination for Best Supporting Actor and could justifiably have been considered for Best Actor.
Although I’m an admirer of Eddie Redmayne, having loved him as Stephen Hawking in “The Theory of Everything” and as a transgender artist in “The Danish Girl,” I found his performance of the role of Tom Hayden a bit disjointed. Possibly the fault lies in film editing errors, or it might be that Cohen simply upstaged him.
Other supporting actors who did remarkable jobs that were not recognized by the Academy included Mark Rylance as the long-suffering but witty defense attorney who has continually to rein in the unbowed band of activists to avoid having innumerable contempt charges added to the suit. Frank Langella is letter-perfect in his portrayal of the complete buffoon Judge Julius Hoffman, who lacked the basic moral and intellectual credentials to preside over such a complex trial.
But what about that damn song thing? Here again, the Academy nominated a song that never appears in the movie. “Here My Voice” fires up as the ending credits roll. Sure, the song is catchy and reflects the tone and message of the movie. I’ve played it over and over as I wrote this review, but sincerely I wish Oscar would forbid nominations of tacked-on music. (Memo to the Grammys: please help us out here and add a category for “any song associated with any part of a movie.”)
What is most disturbing about this movie is that so little has changed. Re-read my opening recitation of the events of 1968. How closely do some of developments listed describe the last year or so? We are entangled in faraway and interminable wars in the Mideast and Afghanistan, demonstrations for racial justice are taking place across the country, and our two major political parties, to a greater or lesser degree, don’t seem to grasp that our country isn’t working for most of us. The similarities between then and now are more than coincidence, and the movie is here to remind us of the alternatives to silent acceptance.
This isn’t a perfect movie. But it is one that everyone should see—and one that “Boomers” will definitely appreciate. 4 stars