They were, essentially, an all-star cast of liberal activists.
In 1969, Tom Hayden and Rennie Davis were proponents of what Hayden would call the “New Left,” impassioned and eloquent leaders of the Students for a Democratic Society. David Dellinger was a family man, Boy Scout leader and longtime conscientious objector, spearheading a movement to end the Vietnam War. Bobby Seale led the radical Black Panthers. Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin ran the Youth International Party—more popularly known as the “Yippies.” They practically defined, and stereotyped, the hippie anti-war movement.
Professors Lee Weiner and John Froines were lesser-known activists by 1969. In fact, when all eight of these left-leaning luminaries land in a Chicago courtroom, charged with inciting violence during the previous year’s Democratic National Convention, Lee quips to John that the trial is the “Academy Awards of protests, and as far as I’m concerned, it’s just an honor to be nominated.”
Apt comparison, perhaps: The trial indeed feels more like performance art than a quest for justice. Richard Schultz, the sharp-but-reluctant lead prosecutor, knows it from the beginning.
“We’re giving [the defendants] exactly what they want,” he tells his boss. “A stage and an audience.”
Abbie and Jerry play their own parts to the hilt—mocking the procedings and coming to court, one day, dressed as judges. The real judge, Julius Hoffman, proves to be a ready-made antagonist. He refuses to let Bobby Seale defend himself after Seale’s attorney falls ill—then has the Black man shackled and gagged when Seale disrupts the courtroom. He doles out contempt charges like lollypops, issuing 170 in all. If cameras had been allowed in the courtroom, it would’ve been the first true, salacious, reality show.
But for all of the charges leveled and theatrics in play, the question still lingers: Did any of the defendants actually commit a crime? How much of the trial is about the law and how much is about … theater?
The Trial of the Chicago 7 is based, of course, on a true story—one that still echoes with cultural ramifications. The movie’s heroes and villains might still be partly determined by cultural leanings or political party affiliation: Someone’s hero might be another’s goat. So let’s choose one representative from each side of the squabble, shall we?
While some on trial came to Chicago ready for a fight, David Dellinger was not among them. The family man had been a pacifist for decades, and he shows his commitment to non-violent protest throughout the movie. Before he leaves for the Chicago demonstrations, he tells his son that one should always turn the other cheek. “Always nonviolence,” he tells his boy, “and that’s without exception.” Though some might disagree with him, you have to give the guy credit for the courage of his convictions. During the protests, David does his best to diffuse any violence before it starts. And when David’s own rage does violently erupt at one point, we see his regret immediately—and he immediately and sincerely apologizes.
Meanwhile, Richard Schultz has been tasked with getting David Dellinger and his fellow defendants (most of whom had never met each other before) charged with conspiracy and thrown in jail. From the beginning, he expresses doubts about the strength of the government’s case. But that doesn’t stop him from being a zealous and ethical prosecutor, doing his upmost to convict his defendants while still respecting them, the court and the process as much as he can. In a trial that’s portrayed in the movie as political theater, Schultz can seem like the only man treating the trial like a trial.
Abbie Hoffman quotes Matthew 10:35, where Jesus says, “I am come to set a man at variance with his father and the daughter against her mother.” He argues that, taking that verse alone, you could argue that Jesus was suggesting that “kids kill their parents.” But Abbie adds that, once you read Matthew 10:34 and Matthew 10:36, the meaning is clear—and he uses the illustration as a plea to not take stray statements out of (what he believes to be the correct) context.
When Black Panther leader Bobby Seale is heading to Chicago to speak of the protests, he’s told that his speech (which exhorts his listeners to “fry the pigs”) is too confrontational. As someone begins to invoke the name of Martin Luther King, Seale cuts the woman off. “King’s dead,” he says. “Malcom [X] is dead, Bobby [Kennedy] is dead, Jesus is dead. They tried it peacefully; we’re gonna try something else.”
Abbie Hoffman says contempt of court “is practically a religion for me, sir,” but also mentions that his grandfather was a “Russian Jew protesting anti-Semitism.”
A woman has her shirt forcibly ripped open during a riot, exposing her bra. Another woman, answering phones where the trial’s defendents meet with their lawyers, is apparently the recipient of an obscene, racist phone call. We can’t hear what the caller says, but the woman says that she’s slept with a variety of partners that are both white and black, and she eggs on the caller by telling him/her which race she prefers.
Jerry Rubin gets involved with a woman who turns out to be an undercover officer. When asked if he’d had sex with her, Jerry says that they were “taking it slow.” Abbie, in conversations and standup comic speeches, repeatedly refers to politicians and their mistresses (using more crass terminology at times). When Abbie and Jerry apply for a permit to demonstrate in Chicago’s Lincoln Park, Abbie informs the official that there would likely be “public fornication” there. He encourages people to attend the demonstration by suggesting that they’ll be able to have casual sex there.
Someone types up perhaps a government form that mentions “sex” and “promiscuity.” Someone refers to protesters as “fairies.” Women burn bras.
In flashbacks to the riots themselves, we see some terrible acts—mostly, the movie implies, perpetrated by the police. Officers beat demonstrators with batons and spray them with mace. We see some drive vehicles with barbed wire wrapped around their bumpers, called “Daley Dozers” (named after Chicago Mayor Richard Daley). Blood flies from weapons, seeps from wounds and splatters on the ground. One woman is nearly raped before being rescued by Jerry. Several people are shown with some pretty bloody injuries in the aftermath (along with at least one person trying to wash tear gas out of her eyes with milk).
Security guards wrestle with Seale, shackling his wrists and ankles and stuffing a rag into his mouth so he can’t talk in the courtroom.
A man named Fred Hampton, a local Black Panther leader, is shot and killed during the trial. We see what appear to be historical photographs of the dead man, and we hear a graphic description of how he was shot in the shoulder (so he couldn’t use a gun) and then in the head. “He was executed,” Seale says. Seale, meanwhile, is spending his off-time in a prison cell—held because he allegedly killed a Connecticut police officer. (An associate swears that Seale’s innocent; the charges, we learn, were later dropped.) A couple of people receive threatening letters allegedly from (the movie suggests, doubtfully) the Black Panthers.
A man punches a security guard in the face. A couple of defendants nearly come to blows. David Dellinger was a conscientious objector for World War II, we learn, which made his own lawyer say, “Even I want to punch you!” Seale refers to America’s history of lynching black people. We hear gunshots and see some historical photos surrounding the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. One defendant keeps a record of the Americans who died in Vietnam during the course of the trial—a list that ultimately reaches to nearly 5,000 men. Protesters and police crash through a bar window. We hear about how napalm kills.
Jerry Rubin teaches a group of people how to make a Molotov cocktail (the recipe for which the movie passes on to the viewers). Others throw those flaming bottles at a Democratic campaign storefront. Some defendants seem itching for more direct confrontation with the police: When Abbie is asked if he’s worried about overreaction by police, he says, “We’re not concerned about it. We’re counting on it.” Whether any of the protest leaders were ready to take the first step is among the trial’s, and film’s most critical questions. But one leader, after seeing a friend attacked by several officers, makes a fiery speech that prosecutors could argue instigated the convention’s biggest riot. “If blood is going to flow,” he says, “let it flow all over the city!” (He later insists that he meant to say, “If our blood is going to flow.”)
Nearly 45 f-words (many paired with the word “mother”), about eight s-words and one use of the c-word. We also hear “a–,” “b–ch,” “d–n,” “h—,” “pr–k” and “f-ggot.” God’s name is paired with “d–n” four times, and Jesus’ name is abused about seven times. We see a few middle fingers flashed.
Abbie and Jerry make no secret about their drug use, and when someone calls the defense’s headquarters and offers to donate marijuana to the cause, the gift is readily accepted. We hear several references to drug use from both of them throughout the film, and Abbie quips that it helps him deal with certain moral ambiguities. When Abbie’s lawyer asks him in court whether he’s stoned, Abbie says, “Yeah. You?” When applying for a permit, he warns the government official that certainly “psychedelic long-haired leftists will consort with dope users.”
Several people smoke, though whether they’re smoking cigarettes or marijuana joints isn’t always immediately apparent. Characters drink alcohol as well. A man tells some protest leaders that he can sell them “a–, weed, whatever you want.”
The judge in the movie, Julius Hoffman, seems unabashedly biased against the defendants and makes some very questionable decisions. Abbie believes that the trial is a political one, not a legal one—and (in the movie’s telling) he’s right: It suggests that John Mitchell, the country’s new attorney general, is using the trial largely to get back at the previous AG for a perceived slight. The Nixon administration had its own political reasons for bringing these men to trial, too, and it’s suggested that the only reason that Bobby Seale (who was in town for just four hours during the riots) is on trial was because he was black. “I was thrown in to make the group look scarier,” Seale says. There’s a suggestion that the prosecution might’ve tried tampering with the jury, as well.
Many of the defendants, especially Abbie and Jerry, treat the legal proceedings with absolute distain. They use the trial for their own political ends—much to the frustration of their own fellow defendants.
In a chance meeting, prosecutor Richard Schultz and Abbie Hoffman discuss the ongoing trial, particularly the theatricality of it all.
“I think you got the result you were looking for,” Schultz says.
“So did Nixon,” Abbie counters.
“How ’bout that?” says Shultz.
“Before a film can be anything else—relevant or persuasive or important—it has to be good,” Director Aaron Sorkin told Smithsonian Magazine. “This isn’t a biopic. You will get the essence of these real-life people and the kernel of who they are as human beings, not the historical facts.”
Give Sorkin credit for crafting a “good” movie, at least aesthetically speaking. Powered by a heavyweight cast (including Oscar winners Eddie Redmayne and Mark Rylance) and driven by Sorkin’s own snappy screenplay, The Trial of the Chicago 7 is a potent and surprisingly funny film, one that’s already being touted for a bevy of possible Oscar noms.
But Sorkin—creator of The West Wing and The Newsroom—is no impartial conveyor of history here. This story’s point of view unquestionably leans left polically. And honestly, Sorkin seems as interested in divisions within the progressive movement—then and now—as he is in the outcome of the trial.
At one point, Sorkin has the principled, clean-cut defendant Tom Hayden confront the wild-haired, perpetually stoned Abbie Hoffman. “My problem is that for the next 50 years, when people think of progressive politics, they’re gonna think of you,” he says. It almost seems as if it’s not Hayden speaking in that moment, but Sorkin—principled, erudite and unabashedly progressive Sorkin—himself.
But the film doesn’t get its R rating because of its politics. No, it earns that in a different way.
It’s fairly obvious that The Trial of the Chicago 7—which dramatizes an event that happened more than 50 years ago—isn’t something that’s meant for children. But for those who might have a pint-sized future poli-sci major in their midst, be warned. This film offers plenty of blood and lots of bad language along with its engaging story. Our verdict, in this case, is to use all due caution.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.