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‘The Trial of the Chicago 7’ Paints a Startling Portrait of the Vietnam War Era

Thanks to Aaron Sorkin’s Netflix film, the whole world can watch the inside story of this landmark clash between two visions of America

Courtesy of Netflix
Courtesy of Netflix

Judgment was rendered 51 years ago — on Feb. 18, 1970, to be precise, the sentencing coming two days later — in the historic judicial outrage known as “The Trial of the Chicago 7.” The anniversary is a moment for reflection, so much so that Netflix made director-screenwriter Aaron Sorkin’s motion picture adaptation available free globally for 48 hours on its YouTube channel.

Especially considering the events at the U.S. Capitol this past Jan. 6, it is important to look back at, and honor, a cadre of true patriots who took to the streets not to attack the foundations of our Constitution, but to uphold them.

Sorkin says he intended his film to be “a painting and not a photograph,” and in so doing he painted the essence of a time as tumultuous as any the United States has experienced, including our own.

Some of the names were famous then and remain so: provocateur Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen); zealous, clean-cut Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne); Youth International Party (whose members were popularly called Yippies) co-founder Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong). Others are less familiar but no less deserving of remembrance: Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp), anti-war mobilizer; David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch), gentle peacemaker; Lee Weiner (Noah Robbins) and John Froines (Danny Flaherty), indicted for mysterious reasons.

For 147 days, those seven — joined for a time by proud Black Panther Party co-founder Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) — were at the mercy of a government determined to bury them away in prison, abetted by crusty, bigoted jurist Julius J. Hoffman (Frank Langella). These defendants’ clash with the system reflected the 1960s’ deep divide, which Sorkin’s script zeroes in on and illuminates for a new generation.

Variety critic Owen Gleiberman wrote, “Sorkin has a flowingly combative love for words, for drama that’s charged with competing notions of what’s right. He wants to hash it all out, to let the animating passions of the ’60s make their case.”

One set of passions belonged to advocates of “law and order,” which too often meant regimentation, repression, segregation and state-sponsored violence. On the other side, a youth movement called out for justice while flouting traditional norms, embracing sexual freedom and psychedelic drug use to their elders’ horror.

Above all there was the war in Vietnam, viewed by millions as a tragic waste of blood and treasure to no sane purpose. In the summer of 1968, as Democrats assembled to nominate a presidential candidate, anti-war protesters arriving in Chicago were greeted by a phalanx of hostile police who’d been mobilized by a government that viewed dissent as treason and the protestors as terrorists and bums. Chaos predictably followed.

The ensuing riots, tear gas and busted heads, historical consensus agrees, can be laid at the feet of overzealous and ill-trained law enforcement. But at the time, the Feds insisted on sending a message to other young would-be dissenters by charging the defendants with “conspiracy to cross state lines in order to incite violence,” a half-forgotten statute that had never before been prosecuted.

Sorkin’s screenplay dramatizes key moments in a long and eventful courtroom proceeding, opening with farcical wordplay and anarchic antics in the sparring between owlish Judge Hoffman and gleeful mischief-makers Abbie Hoffman (no relation) and Rubin. (The casting of noted “Borat” prankster Baron Cohen opposite Langella, who played the stiff-necked former president in “Frost/Nixon,” only serves to intensify the comic edge.)

Behind the scenes, however, rationales for the mockery come out in an escalating quarrel that threatens group solidarity. The accused are far apart in their motivations: Abbie Hoffman and Rubin are intent on exposing the proceedings as a disgraceful political sham, while Hayden and Davis are focused on getting everyone acquitted while putting the police in the hot seat. All are allied against the Establishment with revolutionary fervor, but Hayden wants to win within the system, while Abbie Hoffman would just as soon tip over the whole rotten edifice. Tension mounts in each strategy session with lead attorney William Kunstler (Mark Rylance).

The plight of Seale, , was infuriating when the trial was nightly news and remains so in the film. Co-opted into the dock by the Feds in the hope that a Black Panther in the group would terrify the jury, he is bereft of his attorney, who was sidelined by illness. Seale’s repeated attempts to argue his own case arouse the judge’s ire, leading to the trial’s (and the film’s) most memorable and awful image: Seale dragged into the courtroom, gagged and chained. It’s an image that still shocks the conscience half a century later.

“The Trial of the Chicago 7” repeatedly moves beyond the courtroom to dramatize pre-convention events and street mayhem. Sorkin’s flashbacks expose the hypocrisy of the city’s power structure, and the infamy of undercover cops who infiltrate the protesters’ ranks, flirting with entrapment. When passions finally boil over, even those familiar with the famous black-and-white riot footage will find new insight — and renewed shock — in the re-creations of carnage captured by director of photography Phedon Papamichael and editor Alan Baumgarten.

It all leads to the climactic moment when the seven defendants, led by Hayden, remind Americans — as much now as then — what freedom of speech and concern for humanity are all about.

Back in ’68, the chant was, “The whole world is watching!” And so it was, thanks to the restless eye of television news, present in the streets as never before. TV viewers watched, appalled, as young men and women were savagely beaten in the exercise of their First Amendment right to dissent.

But cameras were not permitted in Hoffman’s court. Only now, through the efforts of Sorkin’s team of actors and artisans, can the whole world be watching the stranger-than-fiction story of what went down over five months in a Chicago courtroom.