It’s a long time until the April 25 Oscars, but hopefully “The Trial of the Chicago 7” will maintain its momentum.
The film about the 1968-’69 turmoil in America was written and directed by Aaron Sorkin, and offers great work by the cast and artisans. Some critics may carp about a few details, but the Netflix film gets the Big Picture right: the division in the country, the rampant lunacy and the oppression in the name of justice. And of course, parallels to today are sobering.
Most U.S movies about the Vietnam era are told from the troops’ POV: “The Deer Hunter,” “Apocalypse Now,” “Platoon,” “Full Metal Jacket,” et al. Rare films such as “Coming Home” and “Born on the Fourth of July” addressed the war at home, but very few centered on protesters, so “Chicago 7” is a welcome addition.
Variety didn’t cover the Chicago 7 trial, but it did cover the DNC chaos and wrote about the trial and aftermath through the prism of TV news. And the coverage backs up all the key points made in the film.
At the start of the Democratic convention on Aug. 26-29, 1968, Variety said the Chicago atmosphere was “ominous, with cops on every corner and National Guardsmen and regular Army encamped in schoolyards.”
Tensions erupted into violence. CBS News’ Walter Cronkite blasted Chi politicians, who apparently felt “safety and security could not be supplied without bayonets and barbed wire… That may be the biggest tragedy of all. A Democratic convention is about to begin in a police state.”
Richard J. Daley was “responsible for insisting that the confab take place in the Windy City despite impending labor disputes and a boiling racial situation,” according to Variety.
Another story said the Lincoln Park Yippie-hippie assemblage was “peaceful but intense” until Chicago police attacked with clubs and tear gas. When newsmen took photos of police removing name badges, enraged cops attacked newsmen. Variety concluded the U.S. had been experiencing “a kind of revolution” for a long time and “the Chicago convention is bringing together all the elements” of national unrest.
The actual trial ran Sept. 24, 1969, through Feb. 18, 1970. NBC reported 233 letters of viewer complaints about news bias during February, with only 23 positive letters. Many letter-writers said the network was unfair to Judge Julius Hoffman. (If you’ve seen the movie, it’s mind-boggling that he had defenders, but maybe it’s not surprising.)
Variety also covered Abbie Hoffman’s April 1970 appearance on Merv Griffin’s talk show, where his American flag shirt was blurred out, because CBS was concerned it might “represent desecration of the flag.” (In comparison, 2020 readers should Google “U.S. flag underwear” for desecration ideas that make a shirt seem wholesome.)
Also in 1970, WMCA radio decided not to air its two-hour interview with Jerry Rubin because it “was sprinkled with obscenities,” a violation of FCC standards. Station president-owner R. Peter Straus told Variety at the time that the FCC “is deluding itself if it thinks the language of today doesn’t include four-letter words.”
On June 10, 1970, Variety reviewed “Chicago 70,” the film version of a Toronto Workshop play, produced and directed by Kerry Feltham. The script juxtaposed excerpts from trial transcripts with passages from Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland.” Reviewer Addison Verrill said, “They complement each other surprisingly well.” He described the production as “a serio-comic look at what has happened to the process of justice in the United States,” where “politics is mired in the theatrics of image making, while the courts are becoming comic book settings.” In 1979, we reviewed “Chicago Conspiracy Trial,” a play at the Odyssey Theatre in West Los Angeles, directed by Frank Condon and produced by Ron Sossi. It was based on court transcripts and Variety said the conclusion was that “the trial was a legal travesty.”
Wouldn’t it be great if things had actually changed in the 50 years since then?