The Good Trouble in ‘The Trial of the Chicago 7’

One of the most telling moments from The Trial of the Chicago 7 is an accident. In protest against the callous and, at times, cruel actions of Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella), the eponymous seven defendants agree to not stand in respect to the judge when called upon by the bailiff. When the time comes, however, one of the defendants, Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne), does stand. The rest look at him with surprised exasperation at his lack of solidarity. He looks at them with confused regret. “It was a reflex,” he says. Deference, even to a staunchly conservative decisionmaker, even on the part of a liberal activist, is second nature in the American courtroom.

It’s impossible to deny that some of The Trial of the Chicago 7’s punch comes from excellent, uncanny timing. The film takes place in 1968 during a tumultuous election year (complete with an underwhelming Democrat against a smarmy Republican) that also saw intense clashes of heated protests and police brutality. Written and directed by banter master Aaron Sorkin, the film chronicles the highlights of a trial that sought to punish activists for inciting riots outside of the Democratic National Convention. Of course, what actually occurred was police violence against protestors trying to speak out against the Vietnam War, but the newly placed Republican Attorney General wanted to prove a point.

Indeed, a point is made. Watching fifty-year-old images that could have been pulled from any social media account today, police violence and the conservative penchant for suppression is as American as apple pie.

But perhaps the most identifiable mirror to today’s political climate comes from Hayden’s knee-jerk respect for the establishment. The liberal bend to ardent conservative whims, the notion that respect offered means respect returned, has permeated into the political systems so that one party is consistently strong-armed by the other in the name of compromise. One sleeps well at night knowing they’ve kept their honor, the other sleeps well knowing they’ve won.

In a prelude to the film’s emotional climax, Hayden (who is, indeed, the vision of liberal virtue) confronts Abbie Hoffman, the progressive rabblerouser aptly played by Sacha Baron Cohen, on his methods for mobilizing the masses: “My problem is that for the next 50 years, when people think of progressive politics, they’re going to think of you. They’re going to think of a bunch of stoned, lost, disrespectful, foul-mouthed lawless losers, and so we’ll lose elections.”  

“Winning elections is the first thing on your wish list?” Abbie responds. “Equality, justice, education, poverty and progress. They’re second?”

“If you don’t win elections, it doesn’t matter what’s second.”

Keep the peace. Play to the middle. Be respectful. Win elections. It doesn’t matter what’s second.

The problem being, of course, that the other side doesn’t have to play respectability politics to win, which is why the beefed-up role of prosecuting attorney Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is such a curious addition. Schultz is hand-picked by Nixon-appointed Attorney General John Mitchell (John Doman) to head up the prosecution, which carries with it a strong feeling of a passing of the guard.

Schultz is a largely symbolic player in this film. Yes, he’s conservative. Yes, he’s prosecuting a case in which the verdict is a foregone conclusion. But he has unwavering faith in the judicial system, an allegiance to Lady Justice so proud he’s as blind as she is. This gives him morality where other conservative players have none.

In the most inhumane moment of the trial, Judge Hoffman bounds, gags, and chains eighth defendant Bobby Seales to a chair for speaking out. The only Black defendant, Seales was only included in this crowd as a way to make the defendants look, in his words, “scarier” to a jury. Shortly after this, Seales’ inclusion was declared a mistrial, and in the film it was Schultz who convinced Judge Hoffman to do it. It’s suggested that Schultz did it because the judge “made a Black man a sympathetic character” so that would weaken the prosecution, but Gordon-Levitt plays the moment appalled. How could such a thing could happen in an American courtroom?

While this did happen at the real trial, there does not appear to be any evidence that the real Schultz had any involvement in getting Seales the mistrial. If Sorkin is interested in weaponizing Gordon-Levitt’s cheek-pinching nice-guy reputation, he is doing it to an uncertain end. The audience has such a relationship with this actor that it’s already hard not to want to be on his side, and this moment (along with several others) makes it impossible not to want to see him as a hero. So why give the fictional Schultz a moment of humanity that the real Schultz didn’t have? Why try so hard to convince us that the right wants respect as much as Hayden does, all while the right is displaying unseemly acts of cruelty?

To say The Trial of the Chicago 7 is trying to take a centrist stand wouldn’t be giving it enough credit but praising it for timeliness or relevancy may also be giving it too much. Development on this film began in 2007, before Obama took office and well before the word “president” preceding the name “Trump” was a sparkle in the GOP’s eye. Sorkin’s typical brand of snark is tamped down to a rather moving effect here (which could be because this film was in the hands of Steven Spielberg before his own) but his eagle-eyed sharpness is intact. His wit plays a superb balancing act to the darkness of the events and times the film discusses.

But intentionally or not, The Trial of the Chicago 7 is an exquisite display of the white man’s role in the American political and judicial systems, for better and worse. On both sides of the aisle, on both sides of the stand, on both sides of liberalism, white men have been arguing amongst themselves about the direction of this country for so long that nothing has changed. The film is an echo of where we are in 2020, but we are also an echo of where the film was. Republicans, the establishment, have relied on the potency of this maddening echo chamber to respect authority, to hold fast law and order, which keeps white liberals like Hayden playing into their hand and keeping progress firmly planted in cement.

At the end of the trial and the end of the film, Hayden is called upon by Judge Hoffman to make a statement on behalf of the defendants. The judge requests that Hayden’s statement be “brief, respectful, remorseful and to the point.” Hayden reads the names of the American soldiers killed in Vietnam since the trial began. Triumphant music swells, some people in the court leave, shaking their heads, some people stand or cheer, Judge Hoffman furiously bangs his gavel. It’s both sweet and subversive in a romantic Hollywood way. It’s like Sorkin to employ such a neat ending, to reframe the narrative and lend the story a happy ending where there might not be one.

It’s not so neat out here, where I’m finishing writing this on election day. A president who has never played to the middle, who has never shown a modicum of respect to anyone or anything, may refuse the results of the election if he loses. Will there be a swell of music? Can we reframe this narrative? In a year that saw the deaths of both Ruth Bader Ginsberg and John Lewis, The Trial of the Chicago 7 reminds us of their respective missions, and that we may have to keep doing it for fifty more years. Dissent. Get into good trouble. 

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