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