The Trial of the Chicago 7

30 Oct 2021 02:15 - 15 Sep 2023 11:05
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    • review of the movie
    • I watched the recent Aaron Sorkin movie about the Chicago 7, and while the whole thing was thoroughly Sorkinized*, it was still kind of a personal thrill to be reminded of this bit of history. It's always had a special place in my mind, if only because I grew up in Chicago and my parents had a book about the trial that fascinated me for some reason (I was 11 at the time). It was interesting to see some episodes I only vaguely remembered from childhood be given a concrete dramatic form, and some missing pieces filled in.
    • If you are not familiar with the history: The Chicago 7 (initially 8) were a collection of leftist activists involved in organizing protests at the Democratic Convention in Chicago, 1968. The Vietnam war was raging, Lyndon Johnson had declined to run for a second term, and political tension had made the country appear to be splitting apart. The protests, intended as peaceful, managed to evoke a great deal of violence, mostly at the hands of the police. The Nixon administration nevertheless decided to bring charges against the protestors, conspiracy to incite a riot. The defendants were:
      • Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, representing the Yippies
      • Rennie Davis and Tom Hayden, representing SNCC campus radicals
      • David Dellinger, an older pacifist activist
      • Join Froines and Jon Weiner, random participants
      • Bobby Seale, chairman of the Black Panthers
    • These groups actually had little to do with each other; it was the government that tried to paint them as a coherent organized conspiracy. The trial was famous for the antics of some of the defendants, and the obvious bias towards the prosecution of the possibly-senile Judge Julius Hoffman, who handed the defendants, and their attorneys, an astounding number of contempt of court citations (all thrown out on appeal).
    • The court became a sort of ritual theater for the enactment of a generational conflict / culture war, with all parties somehow drawn into these larger roles. On one side, the old structure of power, corrupt, ugly, and senile represented by Judge Hoffman, on the other side the youth with their idealism and bravado. And the participants were quite aware of their own iconicity. Rennie Davis told the judge at one point: "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." (dialog which Sorkin inexplicably chose not to include)
    • Obviously the trial has resonance with the political struggles of the present day, We have political tension and protest, and while the basic underlying themes are the same, the position and tactics of the two sides seems pretty different. Nixon and Trump are both figures who give off a whiff of fascism while not quite going all the way there. Trump threatens to lock up his political opponents, the Nixon adminstration actually made a serious legal attempt to do just that.
    • That is one point that my memory was unclear on and the movie handled well – that the prosecution was obviously and demonstrably political. The defense had on their witness list Ramsey Clark, the Attorney General under Johnson, who prepared to say that the Johnson administration had examined and passed on these criminal charges and so therefore the Nixon administrations aggressive pursuit of them was politically motivated. Clark (played by Micheal Keaton) was not allowed to testify at the trial however.
    • But if you pull back a bit this legal maneuvering is kind of pointless, because it was obvious to all that this trial was a kind of ritually staged conflict between not just two radically different political factions but entire sets of values. This was made amply clear by Allen Ginsberg's testimony, an iconic moment that the film again somewhat inexplicably leaves out.
    • Ginsberg's testimony, all made in perfectly cooperative responses to questions from the lawyers, included chanting mantras, reading portions of Howl , and reading other poems and explaining their origin as wet dreams. This all went into the trial transcript.
    • As to the cast, Sacha Baron-Cohen as Abbie Hoffman gets the most attention, but for me the standout performances were from Mark Rylance as defense attorney William Kunstler and Frank Langella as the wizened, semi-senile Judge Julius Hoffman.
    • The movie filled in a couple of interesting piece of the history I hadn't known, including the role of Ramsey Clark (Johnson's Attorney General) as a defense witness, and the relationship of the trial to the murder of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton by the Chicago police.
    • On the whole I thought the movie didn't quite work; I did not understand why they chose to make the whole thing less dramatic, less of a circus, than it actually was. This was a major front in a culture war but Sorkin doesn't really seem to have a handle on that.
    • Sorkinization

      • Sorkinization is a very close relative of Disnification; Sorkin's America bears roughly the same relationship to the real America as Disney's Main Street USA does to the real Amercan street – that is, it is an idealized, sentimentalized cartoon version of it. Sorkin's presentation is far more sophisticated but just as false, and in a similar way. There's something schematic about it, and something kitschy, some way in which it self-consciously acknowledges its own fakery.
      • To be honest I really enjoyed Sorkin's West Wing despite its obvious sentimentality, because that sentimentality played to my own ego and needs. It depicted a world of starry-eyed idealists, it flattered its audience that it was one with these idealistic, caring, dedicated gang of co-workers who happened to run the world. A world like that sounds great , being part of a team like that sounds great , so pretending it is real, for the space of an episode, is a pleasant fantasy. But no more an accurate depiction of how the world works than a James Bond movie.
      • [ It's interesting that the most successful political TV show since then, House of Cards , basically goes as far as it can in the opposite direction, depicting politics as a pure game of amoral power. This too is a kind of cartoonishness, a cheap cynicism that is the flip side of sentimentality. (Actually the most accurate, human-complete show about politics turns out to be Veep). ]