The Trial of the Chicago 7: the Lincoln Project of movies

Originally published on Sumner Newscow on October 23, 2020

Happy Friday. Personally, I have never seen an episode of the early 2000’s drama, the West Wing created by Aaron Sorkin.  I know it’s a staple in American television and considered to be groundbreaking in the way politics were portrayed on the silver screen.

But the constant critique I hear is that it creates a mythical version of politics where facts reign supreme and both sides respect each other as equals.  While I’ve still never seen that show, I know I’ll never need to after watching Sorkin’s new movie on Netflix called the Trial of the Chicago 7.

This film recreates the night in 1968 Chicago where police brutally assaulted protesters outside the Democratic National Convention.  American police making a mockery of their country on the global stage is old hat these days, but at that time this was a major scandal and the Nixon administration was desperate for a scapegoat so they could sell the lie that the very people meant to “protect and serve” citizens were somehow justified when beating the hell out of them on live television.  Luckily there were eight scapegoats in attendance that night, but more on them in a second.

If you haven’t already guessed it, let me make the parallels to modern-day protests in the most ham-fisted way possible, just like the writers of this movie did.  Aaron Sorkin could not beat you over the head with the metaphors of this movie more if he came out of your TV and physically assaulted you himself.  The police take off their badges before beating the protesters (which has happened throughout the BLM protests), the crowd chants “the whole world is watching” which isn’t original, but happens frequently, and every spoken line is dripping with the subtext that screams “see, it’s just like now!”  To say this movie has the subtlety of a gunshot is an insult to guns everywhere.

The Trial of the Chicago 7 tells its jumbled mess of a story by flashing back and forth between the kangaroo court trial and the night of the insurrection itself, opting to use testimonies, silent memories, and a completely unnecessary stand-up routine by one of the characters after the trial wraps.  But to understand how Sorkin lays out his ludicrous thesis, you need to meet his main characters:

  • Tom Hayden, played by Eddie Redmayne: Tom Hayden is as close to a protagonist as we get and is the symbol of “practical liberals” everywhere.  Think JFK including all the privilege.  Despite continually looking like a petulant and selfish toddler, we’re supposed to look at Redmayne as the pragmatic member of the group who believes the middle road is the way forward and only by asking those in power “pretty please with sugar on top” will they stop killing his friends.
  • Abbie Hoffman, played by Sacha Baron Cohen: Cohen took a few weekends off from catching Rudy Giuliani with his hand down his pants to put on the most insane accent I’ve ever heard and stand in for the “radical left” in this movie. He’s a “Yippie” who straddles the line between comic relief and only character in the movie who understands real politics.  The film wants us to look at him as a wise character whose methods are too extreme and a man who begrudgingly respects his less radical compatriot despite his character motivations up to that point at odds with that position.
  • Richard Schultz, played by Joseph Gordon Levitt: Firstly, this may be the worst acting I’ve ever seen from Joseph Gordon Levitt who usually does a decent job with his characters, but if he acted like this to spite Sorkin, all is forgiven. Levitt plays the prosecutor who doesn’t believe in the cause he represents but is just following orders (you know, the Nazi defense).  Despite being the literal weapon of the state, we’re meant to sympathize with Levitt and lament that a broken system would do this to such a respectable man.  The only problem with that feeling is that it’s nonsense.  We don’t feel bad for people who carry out evil on behalf of others and just because he stands in respect of the fallen troops at the end of the movie doesn’t absolve him of doing his job well enough to send five people to jail.

These characters aren’t the only people driving the plot in this clown-car of a cast list, but Sorkin couldn’t decide who the main character was and he made the movie, so why should I.  The trial starts with eight people on the defendants’ side so you may be wondering why it’s called the Trial of the Chicago 7 (or why it’s saddled with that clunky title in the first place).  That’s because the original trial, as well as the movie, starts with the addition of Bobby Seale (played by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II of Watchmen acclaim), the head of the Black Panthers.  The real Seale was in Chicago for four hours that night and was a political pawn to make the defendants look scarier by including a black member, a fact that isn’t missed my Sorkin.  But like most things in this movie, Sorkin uses him to make a ham-fisted connection to the present and refuses to give him a personality outside of that.  Sorkin finally liberates Mateen from the film when the judge has his character beaten and gagged to the shocked dismay of all three attorneys.  In reality, Bobby Seale sat there, bound and gagged, for seven days before the judge finally released him, but in our sanitized version, Seale is released almost immediately.

Unfortunately, the sanitization of history isn’t the only thing this movie uses to distract us from the grizzly truth of what this was all about.  These protests were objecting to the countless deaths in Vietnam and the Democratic Party’s refusal to take a meaningful position against it, which the movie seems to remember sporadically throughout the plot.  The real villains are the fascists who sent police to beat and assault protesters, then prosecute them as the aggressors.  The movie, instead tells this story of authoritarianism as a battle of discourse between two sides on equal moral footing, a common technique of today’s biggest champions of cognitive dissonance: the Lincoln Project.

Rather than tell a more realistic story that would actually be a thoughtful metaphor of what’s going on in today’s America, the filmmakers wanted a fairytale about how fascists and the people they oppress are really just misunderstood allies in the fight against evil.  This is best exemplified at the close of the film when the defendants are given the “freedom” of a final statement before being sent to prison and Eddie Redmayne starts reading the list of names of every American soldier that died in Vietnam during the trial while everyone, including the prosecutor and puppet of the state, stands in respect.

This was, of course, a complete fabrication and wouldn’t absolve the oppressors of what they did even if it had happened, but maintains the illusion of respect between peers so Aaron Sorkin invented it.  Save your time and sanity this weekend and skip the Trial of the Chicago 7 and instead donate to your local Black Lives Matter chapter and don’t forget to vote early.

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