by John Kendall Hawkins
If we internalize the language and imagery of the pigs, we will forever be fucked.
- Abbie Hoffman, introduction to 50th anniversary edition of Steal This Book
1968. It was the best of times; it was the worst of times -- love's feral moans and Molotov cocktails were in the air -- but what the dickens was Aaron Sorkin thinking? What is the point of his new film The Trial of the Chicago 7? Who's the tahgit mahkit? as Abbie would say. Why this picture now?
The Netflix film, written and directed by Aaron Sorkin, stars Sacha Baron Cohen (Abbie Hoffman), Jeremy Strong (Jerry Rubin), Alex Sharp (Renee Davis), Eddie Redmayne (Tom Hayden), John Carroll Lynch (David Dellinger), Danny Flaherty (John Froines), Noah Robbins (Lee Weiner), Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (Bobby Seale), Frank Langella (Judge Julius Hoffman), and Michael Keaton (Ramsay Clark).
Chicago 7 begins with a series of historical segues and cast flashes designed to introduce the national preoccupation with violence leading up to the intended peaceful protests at the DNC, Chicago, 1968. LBJ announces a doubling of the Vietnam draft for men aged 18-24; MLK quavers, "If America's soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read, 'Vietnam'"; MLK's assassinated; RFK's assassinated; a sober, coat-and-tie clad SDS group listens to Renee Davis and Tom Hayden plan out the Chicago DNC protest; Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin rouse distressed-clothed hippies with the carnivalesque levity and the promise of easy sex ahead; MOBE leader David Dellinger stresses "nonviolence'; and Bobby Seale sneers, "Fry the pigs!" (but don't take that out of context). These are followed by quick-cut plans -- Chicago's authorities, youthful protesters -- in back-and-forth segues, ending with Walter Cronkite glumly telling the nation: "The Democratic Convention is about to begin in a police state. There just doesn't seem to be any other way to say it."
Seven minutes in, bang, the movie title appears. It's early 1969, we're in Washington, DC, Attorney General John Mitchell of the newly-inaugurated Nixon administration, wants federal prosecutors Thomas Foran and Richard Schultz to indict the leaders of the Chicago protests for conspiring to cross state lines with the intent to incite rioting, something Schultz regards as pointless, as Ramsey Clark, LBJ's DOJ chief, had already concluded that such charges wouldn't stand in court. Mitchell says, f*ck Clark, "he gave me the finger on the way out," indict them anyway on the civil rights-denying Rap Brown Law, "I deem these shitty little fairies to be a threat to national security." Thus begins the Nixon era, with a declaration of war on the counterculture. For petty, vindictive reasons, Sorkin implies.
This scene is the product of creative non-fiction -- something happened to bring about the indictments, but what? Was Schultz consulted about this meeting? No, apparently not. There's no record that Ramsay Clark ever gave the finger (literally or metaphorically) to John Mitchell. But Sorkin might have consulted Larry Sloman's Steal This Dream, the oral biography of Abbie Hoffman, in which Ramsay Clark describes an incident of police brutality in Chicago and states what he believes led to the indictments. Check it out; it's free; no need to steal it this time. (Frankly, I think this book would make a great movie. Are the Coen brothers busy?)
The Question the viewer is presented with as Sorkin brings us into the US District courtroom in the spring of '69, past protesters chanting, "The whole world is watching," is:
Who started the 1968 Chicago DNC riots -- the protesters or the police?
Spoiler Alert! The next couple of hours are mostly a condensation of courtroom routine lasting the several months of the trial. The lighting is subdued, apparently to reflect the mood of the proceedings and the symbolic reflection of American values on trial. Language is stripped down, with much dialogical space extended between the judge, Julius Hofmann, and members of the Defense and Prosecutors. After the film's fast-moving opening pace, the slow-downed judicial process of the trial seems amplified. It's not chippy and snap-edited like a hip Boston Legal episode, with amazing articulations of legal dilemmas (which is fine, Inherit the Wind, the Scopes trial rocked in its self-serious pace), but slow, plodding, and f*cking boring, the way most long trials are. Verisimilitude is all fine and dandy -- but to use it to yawn-up the ennui of long trials! Tsk-tsk.
If only that was all that had gone missing from the film. Chicago 7 reminds me of two other post-9/11, post-Truth films that stuck in my craw -- Zero Dark Thirty and the more recent Shirley. The former, based on the filmmakers having been made privy to classified Obama White House documents about the raid to capture bin Laden, and the glorified depiction of "enhanced interrogation" in the film (later found to be torture by a Senate sub-committee report in 2014), attempted to sway viewers to see the film as "journalistic," when the eventual Oscar-winning film contained supernatural elements and was justifiably challenged as propaganda. ZDT wasn't especially effective in apprising us of what actually happened that night in Abbottabad.
Shirley was based on a "creative non-fiction" biography of horror author Shirley Jackson by Susan Scarf Merrell, but sinks into unhelpful outright fiction in the film (screenplay co-written by Merrill), when the opening two-minutes of the film sees the book's lead character, Rose, on a train with Fred, her husband, getting turned on by the horrific, stoned finish of "The Lottery" in New Yorker magazine. Rose leads Fred back-train and they proceed to get their jolly rocks off. Call me a nitwit, but scratch my head as I might, unless it was a subliminal signal of Rose's later spoiler alert with Shirley, I don't see the Why of this scene (not in the book) It would be interesting to hear Merrell explain this off-the-rails departure from her book.
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