We open with a 1960s montage of images and statistics. As we view Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy being shot, the increasing number of 18-24 year olds being sent to fight in Vietnam is displayed. We see the lottery showing the dates where everyone sharing that birthday would be conscripted. This is followed by the steadily rising number of dead US soldiers.
Cut to: a series of people going to protest the 1968 Democratic Party Conference. There’s Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin (sans their presidential candidate, Pigasus the pig). There are the student leaders Tom Hayden and Rennie Davis in preppie clothes and sensible haircuts. There’s Bobby Seale, leader of the Black Panthers, veteran pacifist David Dillinger, and the other 2 who no-one has ever heard of, and are only there so that the judge can show discretion and pardon a couple of people at the end of the trial.
Prize to the first person who counted 8 names, when this is supposed to be about the Chicago 7. From the start, Seale was separate from the others, and not just because of his skin colour. His chosen lawyer had suffered an accident, and was in hospital. The biased, and quite probably senile, judge Julius Hoffman refused either to postpone the trial or to let Seale represent himself. He is forced to rely on notes passed to him by rising Panther Fred Hampton.
Like his co-defendants, Seale is regularly charged with contempt of court. Unlike them, he is eventually handcuffed, gagged and beaten up. In the middle of the trial, Hampton is assassinated in his bed by armed police. The prosecuting attornies realise that having a black man in court in chains is not a good advert for the US American justice system, and push for a mistrial verdict for Seale. For the others, the court case goes on. And on.
This film is written and directed by Aaron Sorkin, and boy does it show sometimes. Only Sorkin would take one of the most dynamic and scandalous episodes of recent US history, and focus in on the procedural court case. And boy, are there a lot of court scenes. The film only really breathes in the occasional flashbacks and flash forwards to Hoffman (A)’s stand up shows telling the story of the trial (as recounted in the excellent “Steal This Book”).
Every so often, the film also tentatively approaches an interesting political conflict. Seale tells the student activists that they’re only doing this to shock their parents, which is a slightly different motivation to lynching. They look nervously away. Hayden and Hoffman clash over whether deferring to authority is more astute than laughing in its face. And yet, each time, just as we start to get somewhere, we shy away to show another scene of gavel beating.
Likewise, the attempts to link the story to the present day are ham fisted. Seale is gagged, and can’t breathe (geddit?). The people in charge are uniquely corrupt and must be removed. Which means that voting for even an ineffectual right wing Democrat like Hubert Humphrey is necessary to prevent the worst from happening (can you see where we’re going yet?)
And yet, for all Sorkin’s instinct to solve systemic problems from within the system, The Trial of the Chicago 7 has several things going for it. First the events that it is describing – systematic police assault followed by perjured statements in court – is so shocking that recounting this 52 year old story should inspire a visceral reaction even now.
Secondly, the acting is superb, not least Sasha Baron Cohen as a slightly too tall Hoffman (A). Everyone is as you’d expect them to be. Hoffman is articulate and intelligent, Rubin a stoner who just lucked out, Hayden is destined for a career in the Democrat establishment, but is always aware that this needs him to occasionally make radical-sounding speeches. The conflicts are believable, if often slightly dull.
But isn’t this what Sorkin’s career has always been about? Find a halfway interesting story, then mediate it through the most boring possible lens, while retaining enough sharp dialogue to keep your audience interested throughout. The man who made a 7-series show about procedural process in the White House has struck again. Go and see this, but be prepared to hate yourself for liking it.