Wholesome young radicals
The Trial of the Chicago 7 presents an entertaining but fictionalized account of its subjects
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Riots. Destruction. Grandstanding for the camera. Radicals co-opting civil rights protests to advance their own agenda. Sounds like the last few months, right? Actually, it’s the setting for Aaron Sorkin’s latest movie, The Trial of the Chicago 7.
The film is based on the real 1969 court case that saw a group of young radicals charged for inciting a riot at the Democratic National Convention. Its release proves that the man beloved for his long-running drama series, The West Wing, is still a master at creating tight political drama. And yes, he still knows how to serve up those famous “walk and talk” scenes his fans love.
As he did with the movie A Few Good Men, Sorkin in Trial makes the most of big personalities and the conflicts between them. But those conflicts are manufactured debates that bear little resemblance to the real debates Americans were having then—or are having now.
Even if Jack Nicholson’s Col. Jessep was fairly over the top, he was still effective because he had a motivation that resonated even with those who see the world differently. Here, the Justice Department mostly seems offended by the sight of long hair. In fact, Trial so caricatures the cause of law, order, and middle-class conventions, the film’s ideological heat comes mainly from disagreements among the seven.
Defendants Tom Hayden and Abbie Hoffman clash throughout about how to advance the cause of the cultural left. Hayden believes in using elections, Hoffman in using fame and the force of personality. Hayden wants to make it respectable for the suburbs to vote for their side. Hoffman wants to lead the young and cool through the streets like the Pied Piper.
The problem is that while these debates are highly entertaining, they’re also entirely fictional. Sorkin’s purpose with them seems to be to rewrite history.
Aside from their constant swearing (giving the film an R rating), Hayden, Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, and company are laughably wholesome. Although the real Hayden openly approved violence as a tactic, writing in 1967 that it “can create possibilities of meaningful change,” here he and his cohorts are always eager to prevent clashes with authorities. When they challenge the police, it’s with trembling, pleading voices, not angry, defiant ones. Forget free love and anonymous sex: Here Hoffman and Rubin are romantics, defenders of women’s virtue rather than plunderers of it.
If anything, portraying the seven in this light shows the extent to which conventional morals still hold the American imagination. Sorkin is smarter than the men he’s writing about—he knows if you want to win a national argument, you have to appeal to the middle.
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