You could, if you wanted to, draw a parallel between the openings of Aaron Sorkin’s latest, The Trial of the Chicago 7, and Walter Hill’s cult classic, The Warriors (1979). They both begin with montage sequences in which we are introduced to a variety of characters who represent disparate factions in anticipation of important meetings—a conclave of gangs in the latter, the fraught 1968 Democratic National Convention in the former. The start of The Warriors is clunky in the manner of a student film, while the beginning of The Trial of the Chicago 7 is as slick as the opening sequence of The Dating Game. But I have to think Sorkin was aware of a certain resemblance.
The similarities end there. The Warriors goes on to be an accidentally allegorical action film, and The Trial of the Chicago 7 skips right on past the maelstrom of the convention to become a historical courtroom drama that has as much to say about our modern moment as it does about the legal proceedings that are its ostensible subject.
I was worried, I admit, as things settled down and got rolling. The film is nonfiction, but not in the sense of its being a documentary. Rather, it is a dramatization and frenetic recreation, spliced together at times with archival footage. That wasn’t the troubling part. Rather, early on the story seemed like an episode of Law & Order watched on fast forward. Great swaths of time and history flickered past. As well, the actors had to chew their way through stuffed-mouthsful of Aaron Sorkin–style dialogue, their hurried voices creeping up into the range of Chipmunks Christmas carols. My concern was that the film would wind up as one of Barack Obama’s Correspondents’ Dinner punchlines: an Aaron Sorkin liberal fantasy.
That, decidedly, does not happen. The first sign that Sorkin will not overindulge his nimble pen is how he depicts the fact that those on trial in Chicago did not number seven. There were eight. For most of the trial, Bobby Seale, founder of the Black Panthers—having been falsely accused of murder elsewhere—sits alongside the accused white provocateurs, knowing little about them, and being subjected to abuse by a probably unbalanced judge. It’s in the awkward silent moments of pause that surround Seale’s many plaintive requests for a lawyer that we understand that the stakes of the film are American democracy. Furthermore, it is in those silences that the audience has a moment to register the fact that our own madman-threatened system is an echo of this one.
Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin announce the death of money, New York Stock Exchange, 1967.
Over time, the Sorkinness disappears completely. There may be a bit of banter, but even this comes to have a kind of Pinteresque feel of claustrophobia. The milieus of the film have a painted quality—the color palette of Saturday Evening Post covers—and there are lots of shots of tired, sweaty people in small rooms. Men often loosen their ties. From the midpoint on, the film has far more in common with 12 Angry Men than The Warriors.
That’s the whole point, I think. There’s little attempt here to reveal every fact, or to be true to every nuance of the case. Rather, it’s an attempt to capture the atmosphere of a place and a moment, and the spirit of an era. Zoomed in on those enclosed rooms, you begin to feel the oppression of a society fragmenting itself, sinking closer and closer to an authoritarianism that just wants to keep on truckin’.
In other words, Sorkin’s version of this dark history is a dramatic, heart-rending, ultra-tense critique of the past and of the present threatening to repeat it. The film is art that acts as a form of cultural criticism—it is history made to matter. It is the light of a distant star, traveling through time to offer illumination for yet another dark age.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 offers nothing by way of redemption. But it may be possible to find hope in reexamining what happened in Chicago in 1968. The modern version of these events playing out in Minneapolis, Portland, Louisville, and elsewhere, appear to reveal that our current perpetrators of police and government abuse are not nearly so well organized as the efforts to infiltrate the protests in Chicago. These would-be secret policemen may be equipped with black uniforms and trucks, but they look about as sophisticated in their tactics as the tottery potentate who eggs them on—a man who might soon face a guilty verdict of his own.
There was no happy ending for those tried in Chicago in 1968. But thanks in part to them—and to Sorkin’s memory of them—there may be one for us.
J.C. Hallman is the author of six books. In 2015, he unearthed the first evidence ever found that proved the existence of the young woman known as Anarcha. Since then, he has tracked Anarcha’s life story, from the plantation where she was born to the lonely forest where she is buried. His book, The Anarcha Quest: A Story of Slavery and Surgery, will appear in 2021.
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Brian's Trial & Error Playlist
All My Trials ::: Paul McCartney
Here Comes The Judge ::: Shorty Long
Jesus Just Left Chicago ::: ZZ Top
Murder In My Heart For The Judge ::: Moby Grape
Sign Of The Judgement ::: Cassandra Wilson
All My Trials ::: Harry Belafonte
Say Hello To Chicago ::: Neil Young
Day of Judgement ::: Hugh Mundell