Famous playwright and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin has always been great at explaining motivation. In his TV series The West Wing, President Josiah Bartlett and his staff believed that moving the ball forward politically would mean a more just, economically sound, and tolerant society. The president, some speculated, also was driven to try to impress his father. The baseball players in the Sorkin-penned screenplay for Moneyball wanted to win games. In The Social Network, Mark Zuckerberg became king of Facebook due to personal insecurity and a desire for social prestige.
The Trial of the Chicago 7, Sorkin’s preachy and all-over-the-place new film (screening in certain theaters and arriving on Netflix today), largely fails because it avoids a direct accounting for the motivation of its characters. For to do so would be to uncover some very uncomfortable truths about the American left, radicalism, and the 1960s—truths that Sorkin, who both wrote and directed the film, would rather not face. The most obvious is that many of the activists from that tumultuous and overly exposed era were Marxists and radicals out to destroy the United States. After all, we are talking about people who bombed federal buildings and brandished the flag of the communist Viet Cong, whom Americans were fighting at the time. David Horowitz’s magnificent memoir Radical Son exposes the violent criminality of the protest movement, particularly that of the Black Panthers.
Whether these radicals also conspired to cause a riot is the subject of The Trial of the Chicago 7. In September 1969 seven people were accused by the state of conspiring to incite rioting at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. The accused: hippies Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) and Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong), student leader Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) and his friend Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp), older and more moderate “peace activist” David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch), and two other minor characters.
The government’s case is brought by lawyers Thomas Foran and Richard Shultz (J.C. MacKenzie and Joseph Gordon-Levitt), working at the insistence of John Mitchell (John Doman), Richard Nixon’s newly installed attorney general. Mitchell’s motivation is clear: he is using the conspiracy charges as revenge on both the antiwar movement and what he perceived as a personal insult from his predecessor, Ramsey Clark (Michael Keaton). An eighth defendant, Black Panther Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), is released after judge Julias Hoffman (Frank Langella) declares his case a mistrial.
Of course, it is not unexpected that what unspools in Chicago 7 is a love letter to the American left. The 1960s activists are all earnest, likable people who just want peace, man. There is no mention of Mao, the Viet Cong, the victims of the Black Panthers, or the destruction by the Weather Underground and other left-wing and anarchist groups. Sorkin’s Ramsey Clark is quietly pious, with no foreshadowing of Clark’s embarrassing future radicalism, which Christopher Hitchens once described best: “From bullying prosecutor [Clark] mutated into vagrant and floating defense counsel, offering himself to the génocideurs of Rwanda and to Slobodan Milosevic, and using up the spare time in apologetics for North Korea. He acts as front-man for the Workers World Party, an especially venomous little Communist sect, which originated in a defense of the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956.”
Those opposed to Hoffman, Hayden, et al., are caricatures. Judge Julius Hoffman is a fatuous gargoyle, the Chicago cops are sadistic, unthinking bulldogs, and Attorney General John Mitchell a grunting, growling cartoon. Conservative students are grinning, aggressive grotesqueries. Intended to shock, these liberal tropes have lost all ability to even create interest.
In the past, Sorkin has proven himself capable of more—of offering the audience intelligent and sympathetic conservative characters. In A Few Good Men, probably still his best screenplay, characters defend the honor of the United States military even while two Marines are on trial for murder. “They stand on a wall and say nothing is going to hurt you tonight,” says one of their lawyers. “Not on my watch.” The West Wing had the character of Ainsley Hayes, a sharp Republican litigator who frequently got the best of her liberal colleagues. Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, Sorkin’s drama-comedy about late-night TV, offered a sympathetic and attractive Christian character, Harriet Hayes. Perhaps most impressively, an episode of The West Wing was based on Alger Hiss, concluding that Hiss was guilty and that those defending him were a danger and a disgrace to the United States.
There is none of that in The Trial of the Chicago 7, despite Sorkin having plenty of material to work with. In an informative 2008 article, Daniel J. Flynn shows that protestors gathered in Chicago in 1968 to cause violence. “Far from political innocents clubbed into reality by sadistic policemen,” Flynn observes, “the activists who squared off with cops were generally movement veterans who went to Chicago looking for a fight.” Flynn relates that Jeff Jones and Mike Spiegel of New Left Notes wrote six months before the convention, “to envision non-violent demonstrations at the Convention is to indulge in pleasant fantasying” and that “by 1968, the movement had moved from mere protest to open confrontation. Leaving for Chicago, Terry Robbins—who, 18 months later, would blow himself up while constructing a bomb intended for a soldiers’ dance—told comrades: Let’s go kick some ass.’”
Then there is Tom Hayden, the moral center of Sorkin’s film. Hayden would go on to serve in the California legislature, marry Jane Fonda, and make a career of Leftism, with a recent role as leader of Progressives for Obama. Students for a Democratic Society activist Gerry Long once recalled to David Horowitz that Hayden defended firebombing Chicago police cruisers. “I heard Tom Hayden speak, in chillingly cavalier tones, about street actions which would run the risk of getting people killed,” Todd Gitlin remembered in the book The Sixties. Flynn claims that Mike Klonsky, SDS’s national secretary during the convention riots, described how Hayden plotted to scatter nails over a nearby highway. Bill Ayers writes in his memoir, Fugitive Days, of Hayden’s two different faces when addressing the public versus the closed audiences of radicals:
His voice took on an edge, somewhere between fanatical and giddy, as he described bold plans and playful pranks. But you folks—veterans of the movement and the streets—have a pivotal role to play in all of this, he continued, the color of his face deepening, his eyes once again blazing. He looked intently from person to person. He was the same articulate and thoughtful speaker as before, but these were words for only a few. This demonstration has the potential like nothing we’ve done before to expose the face of the enemy, to strip him naked, to force him to reveal himself as violent, brutal, totalitarian, and evil. It will be difficult—and dangerous—taunting the monster, stabbing him in his most exposed and vulnerable places, but it’s got to be done. And he paused. And you’re the ones to do it.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 makes an attempt to play down Hayden’s call to action by going on a ridiculous exegesis about Hayden’s rhetorical style and how sometimes the right grammar and modifiers were left out in the heat of political battle, obscuring what he really meant. In reality, the trial resulted in five of the seven defendants convicted for inciting riots. All were acquitted of conspiracy. All got lengthy sentences for contempt of court. In subsequent proceedings, the judge’s contempt charges were reversed, and all of the convictions for inciting riots were overturned.
One can argue that the trial never should have been brought—that the whole thing was, as the movie claims, payback because John Mitchell disliked Ramsey Clark. But the claim that the defendants were innocent pranksters and peace-loving activists acting out of love of country is not worthy of Sorkin, or of your time.