Watching writer and director Aaron Sorkin’s new film re-creation about the Trial of the Chicago Seven, which debuted on Netflix October 16th, brought a flood of memories back about a pivotal period of divisiveness in American history that 50-years down the road our country has never fully recovered from and should never be forgotten.
This historical legal drama follows both the events leading up to and the trial itself of The Chicago Seven - a group of anti-Vietnam War activists charged with conspiracy to start a riot by crossing state lines to protest the war and nomination of Hubert Humphrey at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.
Featuring an ensemble cast that includes Sacha Baron Cohen as Youth International Party activist Abbie Hoffman, Eddie Redmayne as SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) co-founder. Tom Hayden, who wrote the party’s definitive platform The Port Huron Statement while attending the University of Michigan; Michael Keaton as former attorney general Ramsey Clark; and Frank Langella as Judge Julius Hoffman, under Sorkin’s meticulous eye for detail the verbal fireworks and partisan prosecution of this divergent group of activists unfolds within a chronologically accurate context that once again validates the notion that truth is always more unbelievable than fiction.
Sorkin has a focused talent for writing factually and historically detailed screenplays, as he’s demonstrated with previous projects as The Social Network where he covered Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, contemporary journalism in his HBO series The Newsroom, and contemporary politics in his other TV series The West Wing. Indeed, much of the dialogue during the trial scenes was taken directly from court transcripts.
What I found most powerful about The Trial of the Chicago Seven is how incredibly timely and resonant it stands within today’s contemporary political context of BLM protests and the unseen maneuvering of the ‘invisible government’, showing how movements can be framed, ignited, infiltrated, and compromised by unseen motives and agents that are not fully comprehended.
Sorkin originally wrote the screenplay in 2007, with the intent of Steven Spielberg directing the film; but after the 2007 Writers Guild of America strike and budget concerns, Spielberg dropped out as director. Filming took place in the fall of 2019 in Chicago and around New Jersey and it was originally intended for a spring theatrical release; but when the COVID lockdowns hit it was delayed and released in select theaters on September 25th of this year. However, due to ongoing fear - or perhaps because of unfamiliarity by younger generations - Deadline Hollywood reported that the film averaged about 10 people per show at the 100 theaters it debuted. Consequently, Netlfix picked up distribution for the film by closing a $56 million deal with the producers.
Within a historical context, 1968 was one hell of a year - the Days of Rage, as it was labeled at the time. Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy had both been assassinated prior to the riots at the 1968 Democratic Convention; and two years later with the Vietnam war still raging and expanding under Richard Nixon, the Kent State shootings of protesting students occurred.
To this day I am convinced that the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963 marked the point the tipping point where the CIA came home to roost and applied the same techniques they utilized in Iran, Cuba, and Vietnam right here in our own backyard. That’s when the Deep State took full control of the cockpit; but once they got Nixon into the White House, that’s when things truly became sinister, only to be exposed through Watergate two-years-late and a dollar short after Nixon took over his second term.
Today people think Donald Trump is the epitome of Evil; but in my book it’s still Nixon, who broadened surveillance, brought in secret federal agents to disrupt and sabotage entities such as the SDS and Black Panthers and much of the ‘New Left’; and waged a campaign to eliminate dissidents, as is brought to light so clearly in this film.
Once Nixon resigned from office rather than face impeachment and his vice president Gerald Ford because president - that was the moment that placed the final nail in the coffin of the notion that elected officials pay for their crimes. The day that happened it set a precedent that has hobbled our great country ever since.
Indeed, one of the most telling lines in this film is when Abbie Hoffman is on the witness stand and the prosecution asks: ‘Do you have contempt for the United States government, Mr. Hoffman? Responds Hoffman: ‘Not as much as my government has for me.’
Without doubt Sorkin’s electrifying dramatization of this pivotal point in American history illuminates issues that still trouble America today because they have never been fully addressed, nor faithfully rectified.
For that reason alone, I highly recommend this riveting and important piece of cinematic achievement.
9th February, 2024