The Chicago 7 trial onscreen: An interpretation for every era
By Jason Bailey
Abbie Hoffman described the trial of the Chicago 7 as “a great show,” and for the past 50 years, moviemakers have agreed. Aaron Sorkin’s new Netflix production “The Trial of the Chicago 7” is the fourth filmed dramatization of the 1969 prosecution of Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Tom Hayden, David Dellinger, Rennie Davis, Lee Weiner and John Froines, who faced federal charges of conspiracy and incitement of the riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention.
That the events in that Chicago courtroom are such catnip to dramatists is understandable — it was, in many ways, performative in nature, with heroes and villains and court jesters aplenty. At one point, Judge Julius Hoffman demanded of Rubin, “You said you enjoyed being here?” And the defendant responded, “It’s good theater, your honor.”
In fact, Jeremy Kagan’s 1987 made-for-HBO movie “Conspiracy: The Trial of the Chicago Eight” (now streaming on Amazon) was adapted from a piece of theater, the play “The Chicago Conspiracy Trial” by Ron Sossi and Frank Condon. Among other differences, the various film versions can’t even agree on their titles; Bobby Seale is often counted, as he began the trial alongside the Chicago 7 but was dismissed midway through to be tried separately, while the defendants themselves often included their two attorneys, making it the “Chicago 10.”
In “Conspiracy,” the attorneys, defendants and judge address the camera as if it were the jury; all of the dialogue is drawn from the original transcripts and, aside from superimposed flashes of archival footage and brief interview snippets from the real participants, all of the action is confined to the courtroom.
If “Conspiracy” feels a touch stagebound (the battery of unconvincing wigs and beards doesn’t help), the instinct to dig into the single setting is sound, striving for the grand tradition of theatrical courtroom dramas: “Inherit the Wind,” “The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial” and Sorkin’s own “A Few Good Men.” The transcript’s best moments feature the kind of dialogue most dramatists would die for, from the Marx Brothers-esque act of Abbie Hoffman and Rubin arriving in court in fake judge’s robes to the righteous anger of Seale, furiously demanding his constitutional rights in an encounter that escalates to his stranger-than-fiction binding and gagging by U.S. marshals.
Most of all, focusing on the courtroom allows “Conspiracy” to let this trial function as a miniature version of the riot itself — featuring, as it did, hidebound authority figures, youthful rabble-rousers, demands for social justice and out-of-control cops. Microcosms abound, in other words; in that trial, just as in the riot that precipitated it, the participants were acting out the entire cultural conflict of the moment.
“Conspiracy” aims to be a time capsule of the late 1960s, but its style and method of filming (it’s shot on vintage, ugly videotape) render it a time capsule of its own late-’80s origin. Yet in a strange way, the creakiness of the technique makes it feel more like the trial simulcast Americans didn’t get. They had to make do with courtroom sketches — as Abbie Hoffman explains, “This trial was being seen by millions of people as a one-minute cartoon each night,” so it’s perhaps appropriate that the next film of the case, Brett Morgen’s “Chicago 10,” is part cartoon.
It’s rotoscoped, to be precise, the animation technique that traces over existing film, popularized by Richard Linklater’s “Waking Life” and “A Scanner Darkly.” Thus, “Chicago 10” (available on Fandango Now) is also a time capsule of its 2008 release, a point underscored by the anachronistic soundtrack featuring Rage Against the Machine, Eminem and the Beastie Boys. As with “Conspiracy,” much is made of the verisimilitude of the dialogue (both films open by noting the dialogue is sourced from the court transcripts). But Morgen approaches his film as a documentarian first, using archival footage whenever possible, and only dramatizing when those materials are not available; Morgen uses the trial as his film’s framework rather than its centerpiece.
Sorkin’s “Trial of the Chicago 7” opens with the same Lyndon B. Johnson clip as “Chicago 10,” but this is quite a different beast, most noticeably in the lack of fealty to the record. Sorkin diverges markedly from the transcripts, and though trace elements of the text remain, he mostly rewrites the events in (and out of) the courtroom with his distinctive, fast-paced, rat-tat-tat voice. (This is merely an observation, not a complaint; he’s a better writer than most people are speakers.)
Perhaps due to the extended passage of time, or the mass audience he typically courts, Sorkin writes with a greater eye toward context. He contrasts the separate factions of the counterculture all-star team of defendants with helpful clarity: he spends no small amount of screen time on the backroom dealings that led to their prosecution in the first place, and the role of incoming President Richard M. Nixon in reanimating an investigation his predecessor had abandoned.
That’s all new, and helpful. So is the increased prominence given to Fred Hampton, head of the Chicago chapter of the Black Panthers and the closest thing to an adviser the lawyer-less Seale had during his time at the defense table. The choice to spotlight Hampton’s participation, as well as his senseless death at the hands of Chicago police during the trial, gives Seale a clearer motivation for his actions, and renders his treatment in the courtroom (where Julius Hoffman directs marshals to take Seale “into a room and deal with him as he should be dealt with”), all the more disturbing.
Sorkin doesn’t dispense entirely with the trappings of his predecessors — there are flashes of documentary footage, and some of the testimony (most notably Abbie Hoffman’s) is closely replicated. And for much of “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” this isn’t a problem. As proven by “The Social Network,” strict fidelity to history is not exactly a make-or-break proposition for Sorkin. But his instincts fail him when he arrives at his cringingly corny conclusion, in which the group’s “sentencing statement” is disrupted by soaring music and Capra-esque theatrics that are patently phony — something you simply cannot do in a true story like this.
On the other hand, the real sentencing statements, dramatized in previous films, included this shot from Davis to Julius Hoffman: “You represent all that is old, ugly, bigoted, and repressive in this country, and I will tell you that the spirit of this defense table will devour your sickness in the next generation.” It’s the most Sorkin-eseque dialogue in the transcript, and Sorkin’s decision to exclude it is downright baffling. Dramatic license is good and well, but if there’s a lesson to be learned here, it’s that sometimes you simply cannot improve upon history.