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‘The Trial of the Chicago 7:’ how to make history worthless

In 1968, ten thousand demonstrators gathered in Chicago during the Democratic National Convention (DNC) in order to protest the Vietnam War. This counterculture gathering eventually culminated in the police and National Guard attacking the crowds with tear gas and batons. Charges were filed by the Justice Department against the organizers of the protests, including Tom Hayden (leader of “Students for a Democratic Society”), Abbie Hoffman ’59 (founding Yippie and Brandeis alum) and Bobby Seale, co-founder of the Black Panthers. The “Chicago 7” were accused of conspiracy and of intentionally inciting a violent riot. 

The trial was a farce. Judge Hoffman (no relation to Abbie) excessively cited the defendants and their lawyers with contempt, numerous cross examinations were discarded and the defense was denied the ability to screen jurors for bias. The Chicago 7 trial stands as one of most highly publicized examples of the Nixon administration’s drive to silence dissidents. Fifty years on and that same systemic authoritarianism, corruption, negligence and acerbic hatred for the “left” feels all too familiar and insurmountable. Now is the perfect time for this story to be retold, and Netflix decided to do just that. If only they had done anything else other than retell a story.

“The Trial of the Chicago 7” unspools the events of the trial and the preceding riot for two hours, justice constantly miscarrying before our eyes. There is little in terms of character development. There is one half-scene of Eddie Redmayne’s Hayden and Sacha Baron Cohen’s Abbie Hoffman coming to better respect each other’s style of protest, but that’s about it. Rather, this film is a reassuring sentiment expressed by its creators that the degradation of norms is neither new nor permanent, and that when history is written, the corruption the establishment thinks it can get away with will eventually be laid bare. It’s a pretty picture. Ending on an inspirational violin crescendo as Hayden defiantly reads out the names of soldiers, the court cheers as the judge screams powerlessly before a freeze frame that tells us what happened to each of the defendants. I didn’t realize movies could end so saccharinely anymore. But if it was going to the trouble of teaching us history, “The Chicago 7” should probably have found more to say than “one side was good and one side was bad and looking back it is clear that the bad guys were the bad guys.”

How do you protest effectively? Did the peace movements of the 1960s and 1970s give the Democrats a bad image? Did they condition the Democratic Party to be softer and more moralizing, allowing Republicans to be more cut-throat? Why do representative governments demonize those they represent? Does “The Chicago 7” answer any of these questions? The film hints at each of these queries but only answers the last one. No. This film is only interested in reminding us that the problems of today were the problems of yesterday as well, but it gives no insight into those problems, and therefore no insight into our own. 

Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays the federal prosecutor, Richard Schultz. He gets little focus throughout the film which seems like a waste of an actor of his caliber, but worse, it prevents us from seeing how the establishment views this trial. How are they rationalizing their corruption? Are they even bothering to rationalize it? The best we get is a painting in the background of AG John Mitchell’s office in the beginning of the film: “Destruction,” a depiction of the fall of Rome to lawless foreign hordes, a fantasy that ignores how Rome crumbled from its own internal failings. Such false idealism and gleeful othering allowed Nixon and Trump to demonize their own citizens in the name of patriotism. The film never points this out. The film never asks why Judge Hoffman is antagonising the defence. He and the rest of the government are just “The Man.” 

I’m not asking for a “both sides” argument of this story. I’m asking for the story to argue anything. The point of the movie should be that this familiar story shouldn’t be familiar to us. If the proceedings were clearly a farce, the court’s decision was thrown out later and the protesters were righteous and meaningful, then why, 50 years later, do people still have to scream and march and get tear gassed by the same establishment that is more concerned with deciding who counts as a patriotic American than it is with serving Americans. Why didn’t America really change? What did our heroes do wrong? What can we do? If the film can’t give the viewer even a passing insight or new perception of the present it claims to be relevant to, then it is useless.

In a different year, I could like “The Trial of the Chicago 7.” It’s well-edited, well-acted and is a good introduction to an important story. The movie is also very funny at times, with Sacha Baron Cohen channeling the chaotic and hilarious radical energy of true blue Brandeis boy Abbie Hoffman. But this is 2020 and the hour is most dire. Our government has shamelessly let itself be corrupted, hollowed out and weaponized by our president in front of the whole world. We are staring down the barrel of authoritarianism and even if the Democrats win there is no guarantee that rot will ever go away, or if, in another 50 years, there won’t be another Trump. Things being as they are, this movie’s lack of introspection and message comes off as thoroughly disingenuous and uninterested. What matters isn’t just how history is written, it’s learning from what is written so the next page can say something different. 

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