1968 was a year of recurring turbulence for the United States, all of it witnessed in American living rooms, courtesy of television.
Republican intellectual, George F. Will, notes that America was rocked by the Tet offensive in Vietnam early that year to be followed by the assassinations of Dr Martin Luther King and Senator Robert F. Kennedy. The draft for the US military continued, to reinforce President Lyndon Johnson’s commitment to the Vietnam War. This was especially unpopular on American college campuses and demonstrations became the norm across the country, often met by a tough police response.
Nowhere was this truer than in Mayor Richard J. Daley’s Chicago. Originally, the Chicago 7 were the 8. They were charged with conspiracy under what was known as the ‘Rap Brown Law’, named for the incendiary black militant, citing as a felony, the crossing of state boundaries to foment a riot. This was Richard Nixon’s America and attorney general John Mitchell, later of Watergate criminality himself, was determined to bring the culture warriors of the American New Left to heel.
The violent demonstrations at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago the previous year in August 1968 offered Mitchell his opportunity. Indictments were brought down by a grand jury and eight defendants, representing the cultural rainbow of American dissidents were placed in the dock. They were Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) and Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp) of Students for a Democratic Society; Yippie (Youth International Party) leaders Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) and Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong); David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch), a pacifist and anti-war activist; and Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), national leader of the revolutionary Black Panthers. There were two other defendants, Lee Weiner (Noah Robbins) and John Froines (Daniel Flaherty), but in the film, no one, including the prosecution, seems to know why.
Writer/director, Aaron Sorkin, the gifted creator of The West Wing brings these characters and the temper of the times, together in a superb film, The Trial of the Chicago 7, which rekindles the great debates over the Vietnam War; racial tensions; generational change and poverty in America, during the Sixties.
There is not a weak performance in this film but outstanding honours must be afforded Frank Langella as Judge Julius Hoffman and Michael Keaton as LBJ’s attorney general, Ramsey Clark. Langella was magnificent as the artful Richard M. Nixon in Frost/Nixon, but in Sorkin’s film, he is infuriatingly tyrannical from the bench. Keaton is mesmerising as Clark, a Texas Democrat with a passion for civil rights. Langella and Keaton grace the screen with their performances.
Judge Hoffman became notorious during the trial. His language, demeanour and rulings constantly favoured the US government prosecutors. Even the federal prosecutor, Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is embarrassed by Judge Hoffman’s obvious bias and this leads to an important moment in the film. Bobby Seale’s lawyer is in the hospital but Judge Hoffman will not permit him to represent himself. Tired of Seale’s understandable endeavours to inject himself into consideration, Hoffman orders him bound and gagged in an action, the notoriety of which has never faded. Schultz argues for the separation of Bobby Seale from the other defendants and the Chicago 8 become 7.
The Democratic National Convention is the constant backdrop in the film. Bobby Kennedy is dead and Vice President Hubert Humphrey, a moderate, is the likely nominee. The anti-war movement from the philosophically dedicated SDS, guided by their famous Port Huron Statement, to the media performing Yippies, arrive in Chicago to protest the war. Grant Park in the city becomes a battlefield as the Chicago police enforce Mayor Daley’s edict that the protestors have no right to be there. Subsequently, the Walker Report to the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence labelled the violence as a ‘police riot’. And Sorkin leaves no one in any doubt about how brutal the Chicago police were. He does this by cutting from his actors being clubbed or tear gassed to real vision of the melee as it actually occurred.
Sorkin has made a first class drama, but this is not entirely history. While much of the movie is based solidly on historic fact, the director ignores the reality that Senator Eugene McCarthy was the undoubted leader of anti-war Democrats. It was his strength in the New Hampshire Democratic Primary that had forced LBJ out of the race and Norman Mailer records in Miami and the Siege of Chicago, that McCarthy’s staffers in a downtown hotel had shown their support for the demonstrators outside by flicking their room lights on and off.
This is not the first occasion where the Chicago 7 has been turned to drama, but this film underlines the tensions within the defence as well as the confrontations in the court with Judge Hoffman. There is a marvellous scene in which Tom Hayden and Abbie Hoffman debate the merits of their political positions, with some sharp language reflecting pointed observations about ambitions and commitments.
Hayden went on to become a Californian assemblyman and ultimately tried to put into practice what he argued in Chicago.
Hayden is also involved in a searing rehearsal for a cross-examination by William Kunstler (convincingly portrayed by Mark Rylance, who has previously impressed in Bridge of Spies), to underline how vulnerable he would be on the stand being questioned by Prosecutor Schultz. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is first-class as Schultz; sceptical about the prosecution, but thoroughly professional in his approach. It is a strength of this film that there are no heroes and villains in black and white, except Judge Hoffman, merely shades of blue and green and grey. And while it is difficult to take the indulgent Yippies seriously, given their attempt in Washington DC to levitate the Pentagon, the best line of the real trial belongs to Abbie Hoffman.
Asked about the alleged conspiracy, Hoffman’s response was definitive: ‘We couldn’t agree on lunch’.
The impact of this movie should not be lost on the America of Donald Trump as it emerges into the America of Joe Biden. The clubbing of peaceful demonstrators and media outside the ‘Church of the Presidents’ on Lafayette Square in Washington DC earlier this year would not have been out of place on Michigan Avenue in Mayor Daley’s Chicago.
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Stephen Loosley is a Senior Visiting Fellow at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney.
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