The Trial of the Chicago 7 (Aaron Sorkin, 2020)

In August of 1968, eight people, Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Tom Hayden, Rennie Davis, David Dellinger, Lee Weiner, John Froines, and Bobby Seale, prepare to protest the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. After five months, all eight of them are arrested for attempting to incite a riot. Attorney General John N. Mitchell appoints Tom Foran and Richard Schultz to prosecute the eight defendants for what he believes to be a conspiracy against American values.

Anyone even passingly familiar with the 1960s knows that it was a very tumultuous decade in history – especially in the United States. The decade’s predecessor, the 1950s, tends to be a romanticized period in American history with the common perception being that it was a time of prosperity and happiness. The Second World War was over, and so everyone should be happy. However, things weren’t all smiles and sunshine in that decade. In fact, if you even put a toe out of line, that friendly veneer would vanish instantly, and you, in turn, were labeled a communist, a radical, a dissident – anything to ensure you became a pariah.

The 1960s thus represented a period when people seriously began questioning the world around them. Figures such as Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar Evers, and Robert F. Kennedy were all examples of people who challenged the status quo during this time. Unfortunately, when enough people begin challenging the status quo, their efforts tend to be resisted by those who have a vested, selfish interest in maintaining it. Indeed, none of those four figures associated with the Civil Rights movement would even live to see the end of the decade. Extremists answered their peaceful requests for equality with bullets.

When The Trial of the Chicago 7 was released in 2020, many critics compared the events depicted in the film to contemporary struggles. Especially notable is Schultz placing the eight defendants’ factions “the radical left, in different costumes”, which mirrors the far right’s attempts to discredit movements advocating for social progress. The Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), Youth International Party (Yippies), and the Black Panthers are condemned in by Schultz much in the same way the Black Lives Matter, Democrats, and various LGBT movements were in the latter half of the 2010s by the far right. Although the exact methodology differed, the goal was exactly the same: to make doing the right thing a controversial, radical stance.

Indeed, if one thing made perfectly clear in The Trial of the Chicago 7 is that the 1960s was an especially difficult time to be a young person. It didn’t matter what your political stance was, either; even if you weren’t protesting with the leftists, there was a good chance you would receive a letter from the draft board and die an inglorious death on the battlefields of Vietnam.

If you were spared the draft, yet believed in social change, then you would end up fighting an ideological war in your home country against a coalition who despised every fiber of your being. While Richard Schultz was historically gung-ho in his crusade to convict the eight defendants, his efforts were aided by Judge Julius Hoffman, who makes it clear in his first few minutes of screentime that he has no objectivity to speak of. The defendants are already guilty in his mind, and holds them in contempt at the slightest provocation. He constantly denies Bobby Seale’s requests to summon his lawyer, eventually having him brutalized in court.

Despite the serious subject matter, the film is surprisingly humorous at times. From the beginning, it is apparent that the sheer disdain Judge Hoffman has for the defendants is entirely mutual. Said defendants provide no shortage of snarky answers to his questions, and they are held in contempt of court multiple times as a result. They likely know they don’t have much of a chance of being acquitted, and therefore decide it’s best to go down swinging, potentially robbing the judge of a satisfying victory.

What I feel ultimately allows The Trial of the Chicago 7 to succeed is that, while Director Aaron Sorkin unquestionably sides with the defendants, he doesn’t make the rookie mistake of romanticizing them. Tom Hayden, at one point, remarks that the radical actions of left-wing groups will reflect poorly on the mainstream left, which, in turn, will cause them to lose elections. This remark foreshadows the fact that the next two decades would see the Republicans firmly in control of the country – even after the temporary setback known as Watergate, which, in addition to being the single greatest scandal involving a United States president at the time, also saw the disgrace of the aforementioned John N. Mitchell. It serves as a reminder that while conviction and the willingness to do the right thing are important, the art of negotiation and selling the masses on your ideas is not one to be discounted. It doesn’t matter how brilliant your ideas are if you can’t convince anyone of their value.

In this narrative, Tom Hayden’s own words accidentally end up condemning the protests. He makes a speech, saying “If blood is gonna flow, then let it flow all over the city”. While the prosecution takes this to mean that they intended to kill the police in their marches. What Hayden actually meant was that if the cops are to beat them up, then their brutality should be on display for the world to see. This simple ambiguity makes things significantly more difficult for himself and his fellow co-defendants.

At the same time, these two aspects were important for the narrative, for it reinforces the notion that, while those who seek to effect positive change have their foibles, their ideas are always worth hearing out. A common tactic employed by the far right is to emphasize these weaknesses of character to discredit progressive ideas without actually addressing them – something both Judge Hoffman and Schultz constantly do throughout this film. These criticisms are seldom, if ever, made in good faith because, on a subconscious level, the far right knows the mainstream won’t go along with their own ideas as is. Nonetheless, the reason it’s a favorite tactic of theirs is because they’re in favor of maintaining a flawed status quo, which requires less effort than actively changing it.

While this may sound distressing, it’s also worth noting that, while their victory conditions sound easier to meet, in reality, a scenario in which they emerge the uncontested winners does not truly exist. When the far right fires on all cylinders and achieves victory, they best they can do is to delay progress. The idealistic tend to win out in the long term over those who don’t stand for anything as evidenced by the existence of this very film. While Judge Hoffman was able to get his much-wanted guilty verdict, history remembers him, John N. Michell, and Richard Schultz as the villains. Their successes don’t mean much when they leave behind such dubious, condemnable legacies. Conversely, though the Chicago 7 may have lost their trial, history remembers them as righteous freedom fighters. Their actions may not have effected immediate change, but their sheer tenacity in a world that hated them is one successive generations inherited.

Whenever films depicting political events like The Trial of the Chicago 7 get released, oftentimes, you will hear critics praise it for how relevant it manages to be as of the writing of their reviews. In practice, this praise tends to read more like a lament – that despite all of the liberals’ hard work, many issues from decades past still remain. The problem I ultimately have with those sentiments is that, to some extent, they inadvertently downplay the objectively real progress that has been made since the events the films depicted. In truth, if any work depicting historical events comes across as “sadly relevant to this day”, I think it speaks less to the lack of progress having been made and more to the fact that the ideals it espouses are always worth fighting for. It certainly is important to know the tactics of those vehemently against change so as to effectively combat them. The willingness to accept criticism is the mark of a healthy, sustainable institution, and being willing and able to point out its flaws denotes a person with a strong moral compass.

This is what, exactly, allows The Trial of the Chicago 7 to succeed. Mr. Sorkin clearly has a message for his audience, yet he doesn’t do anything to actively rob his narrative of applicability. Consequently, his film ultimately doesn’t fall in the same trap of some of its contemporaries such as Adam McKay’s Vice, which often had so much vitriol to spew that they wound up targeting entirely innocent parties. Mr. Sorkin was a storyteller who knew what he wanted to accomplish with his film, and that amount of focus allowed his sophomore directorial effort to stand out from his competition.

Final Score: 7/10

17 thoughts on “The Trial of the Chicago 7 (Aaron Sorkin, 2020)

  1. Great review! I was really impressed with this movie, both because it depicted such an interesting moment in the US history and because it was so well made and acted. It’s sharp and witty and funny, but it also clearly shows the tragedy and rabidity of the 60’s.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It sure was something, alright. It really makes me shake my head at the people who claim they were born in the wrong generation because they didn’t get to live when the good music from this era was coming out. I’m always like “Really? You want to live through *this*?” But yeah, the film was good. I’m kind of surprised it’s only the second film Aaron Sorkin has directed.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. This is interesting because here in the UK there was a series of TV movies late last year called Small Axe about life for black people in Britain, some based on true stories.

    The first “Mangrove” was about a group of black people protesting police brutality and racism which turned violent when the police arrived and attacked them, with the black people arrested for causing a riot. They also had to go up against a biased judge and corrupt police trying to protect each other.

    Worth a watch if you can get it in the US even if it is just to compare and contrast the two films.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I never heard of it until you mentioned it, but apparently, it’s directed by Steve McQueeen of 12 Years a Slave and Widows fame, so it’s certainly got a talented person behind it. I may have to be on the lookout for that one.

      Liked by 1 person

      • The whole series was co-written and directed by McQueen, with one of the films “Education” loosely based on his own experiences as a black kid growing up in Britain. It’s a good anthology overall (although I’m the only one who didn’t like “Lover’s Rock”) and I’d also recommend the third film “Red, White, And Blue” with John Boyega as a black cop trying to improve race relations between police and the black community but ends up suffering abuse from both sides.

        I believe they are Amazon Prime in the US.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. This is one I have to see, both for its legal and historical aspects. Aaron Sorkin is a talented guy, too. He clearly has his beliefs, but he’s smart enough not to push them in a way that feels like you’re being lectured or talked down to, so I’m not surprised he did well with this movie.

    I entirely agree about the critics’ laments you bring up. I understand the despair people feel when they look at the political situation in the US, considering everything that happened over the last four years (and even before that, since that far right extremist movement certainly didn’t appear out of thin air.) But it’s also vital to avoid defeatism. To get personal about it, I really hated hearing these defeatist attitudes from people I knew who wanted to have a political change and a return to stability with the elections last year but were convinced that it wouldn’t happen. And then it did happen, thanks to an enormous effort on the part of Democrats together with some independents and even dissenting Republicans. And on a larger historical scale, we’ve also absolutely made progress since the 60s, even if we still face serious social and economic problems, and it’s best to keep that in mind while continuing to work for a better future.

    I also have nothing but contempt for judges who don’t make an effort to be objective in the courtroom. Naturally judges are human like anyone else and have their biases, but the ones I’ve worked with and around for the most part try to set those feelings aside and act as impartial arbiters as they’re supposed to. Those who don’t make that effort don’t deserve to be on the bench.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah, he’s quite a bit ahead of the likes of Adam McKay in terms of talent, so the fact that this fared better than, say, Vice, is indeed unsurprising. I’m actually surprised this was only the second film he directed; he mostly made a name for himself as a screenwriter up until Molly’s Game, which is impressive given that directors tend to get more credit than screenwriters.

      And I find it’s very difficult to relate to those news articles because I can tell they were written by people who have already thrown in the towel; they point out problems, but don’t bother proposing solutions. It’s a very passive way of dealing with these problems; a more helpful way would be to implore readers to do something about them. To overlook the progress that has been made is a complete disservice to those spending every waking moment advocating for positive social change and have succeeded in making it happen. In fact, given how the Derek Chauvin trial was ruled earlier today, I think it’s safe to say at least some progress has been made. That was a decision that likely would not have been made back in 1968.

      And a judge who can’t be objective would be like climbing into the taxi helmed by someone who can’t drive. The life is in the hands of someone who absolutely should not have that kind of authority. You should do what you can to support those kinds of judges, because we could always use more of them.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Absolutely. I get some of the hang-wringing stuff, but without a proposed solution it’s all useless, and maybe worse than that. And yeah, certainly Chauvin would have gotten away with an acquittal back then, or at least there would have been a hung jury. I still feared the latter would happen, but it seems like the entire jury took their jobs seriously, which is always great to see.

        Where I live, all the judges are elected, so people in theory can oust a judge who’s not doing their job properly. But of course, nobody knows who their judges are really, and they usually run uncontested, so I’m not sure how much of a difference that makes.

        Liked by 1 person

        • I myself would argue they’re worse than useless given that they have the potential to sap any kind of hope from the readers, discouraging them from taking action when doing so could be the one thing that could make all the difference.

          But yeah, not only was the verdict unanimous, it didn’t even take a particularly long time for them to convict him. Two days is a pretty short amount of time for a guilty verdict in a high-profile murder trial, wouldn’t you say?

          And that’s why I tend to get recommendations from people more versed in politics than I whenever the option to vote for judges pops up; I certainly don’t want to neglect my civic duties and let an incompetent take the bench if I can help it.

          Liked by 1 person

          • I think I agree with you. I felt drained reading and hearing some of that defeatist stuff myself until I got sick of it. I’ve been to places where people completely fell into cynicism over politics (for good reason admittedly) and I hate the idea of that happening here. Hopefully we’re moving away from that now.

            Considering how high-profile this case was, yeah, two days wasn’t unexpected. I expect they were probably trying to work out which charges to convict him on since there were three. As a general rule, the longer the jury is out, the better it is for the defense — I worked on a murder trial once where the jury was out for only 30 minutes, and that was pretty much a forgone conclusion after all the evidence brought out at the trial. But you can never really tell what’s going on in the jury room unless they agree to talk about it later.

            That’s a good rule to follow. It’s great to know about the statewide and local elections of all kinds, since they’re very important but too often ignored.

            Liked by 1 person

  4. “In truth, if any work depicting historical events comes across as ‘sadly relevant to this day’, I think it speaks less to the lack of progress having been made and more to the fact that the ideals it espouses are always worth fighting for.”

    Love that take right there! I hadn’t thought about it like that.

    I honestly thought you wouldn’t give this one such a good grade. I have read a lot of criticism regarding a perceived “lack of style” and numerous cliched elements. But, personally, it was one of the nominees I enjoyed the most. I am glad you liked it.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Editorializing a bit here, but I also kind of find “sadly relevant to this day” a bit of a clickbaity phrase. It’s what someone writes when they’re angry but have also thrown in the towel; it’s really not a good look for their credibility.

      And while I do think this film is a tad straightforward, I don’t think it was lacking in style. Or alternatively, Mr. Sorkin didn’t make the mistake countless contemporary auteurs make by providing a style-over-substance experience; the substance is meant to be the true star of the show, and I don’t think enough film critics realize that.

      I’ll say more when I reveal the list, but I will admit this one is going to rank pretty high.

      Liked by 2 people

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  6. I’ve not yet seen this film, but I really like your point re: Aaron Sorkin not romanticizing the characters. It seems he always tries to make a solid argument for the other side in his films, whether he agrees with them or not, which makes for compelling viewing.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think it helps that when it comes to political content, Aaron Sorkin is a cut above his competition. He can sell people on his viewpoints because he approaches his craft with the skills of a highly effective persuasive writer wherein he acknowledges the flaws of his subjects while also imploring his audience to look beyond them and what they’re trying to say. Too many of his contemporaries or successors have bad habit of reaching for the sledgehammer every time they want to make a point, which renders their stories inorganic.


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