In 1970, two friends and I, aided by dozens of others, immersed ourselves in the transcript of that trial. Days after it ended, our efforts culminated in “The Tales of Hoffman
,” a bestseller whose title referred to both the judge and one of the most famous defendants, Abbie Hoffman, and which reduced around 22,000 pages of the words of the trial participants into a paperback.
Now, 50 years later, I would have the opportunity to compare a movie by one of the greatest screenwriters of all time to reality. And our excitement only grew when Simon & Schuster reissued our book — with a foreword by Sorkin — under the title “The Trial of the Chicago 7: The Official Transcript
Perhaps a movie was inevitable, because the antics in the courtroom were cinematic from the start. Given that, I was not surprised that Sorkin’s film
, which debuted on Netflix on October 16, is terrific, with an amazing script, crisp directing and a dazzling cast.
America today confronts issues eerily similar to the late 1960s and early 1970s. An egotistical president who believes he is above the law. An attorney general wielding the Justice Department as a partisan force. Police wading into crowds of peaceful protesters, shoving, clubbing and arresting them to stifle dissent. Systemic racism targeting Black Americans. A polarized country. The question is: what has America learned, if anything
, between then and now?
It’s a question Sorkin is also clearly asking with his varying artistic treatment of historical events in the film. What stood out most to me are its flashbacks to the streets of Chicago in August 1968, when thousands of activists gathered in Grant Park to protest the Vietnam War and the Democratic National Convention. The flashbacks include black and white footage from the 1960s as well as recreations. Scenes of Lyndon Johnson escalating the Vietnam War in archival footage, and actors playing police wading into crowds of protesters are juxtaposed against recordings of the actual police riot. This, along with representations of speeches that the defendants gave to college groups and their supporters, captures the spirit, if not always the actual words, of the defendants
Sorkin takes the greatest liberties creating a tension between his two protagonists, defendants Abbie Hoffman of the Youth International Party (Yippies) and Tom Hayden of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), magnificently played by Sacha Baron Cohen and Eddie Redmayne. Abbie is the long-haired cultural revolutionary, who dresses outlandishly and confronts authority, often with humor, arguing that a political trial demands outrageous behavior. Hayden is the opposite. Well-dressed and respectful, he fears that Hoffman’s tactics will alienate the jury and jeopardize their chances to avoid prison. He instinctively rises for Judge Julius Hoffman when other defendants remain seated to protest the judge’s outrageous and racist treatment
of their fellow defendant, Black Panther Bobby Seale.
Although the reality is somewhat different — I’ll get to that in a minute — their contrasts allow Sorkin to pose a pivotal question to the viewer as they weigh their own sympathies. Do we sit quietly in the face of repression or do we confront it head-on, violating traditional norms, even at the risk of alienating others? In Sorkin’s hands, Hayden and the defendants’ lead counsel, William Kunstler, eventually reluctantly embrace greater confrontation, and the finale of the movie — spoiler averted here — is a soaring ode to that confrontation.
In reality, very little such reluctance existed. The transcript shows that on the very first day of the trial, it was Hayden — not Hoffman — who raised his fist to greet the jury and was admonished by the judge. Bill Kunstler never had to be convinced that this trial was political. The contrast between Hoffman and Hayden played out after the events shown in the film
— Hoffman continued to deploy humor and bombast, eventually going underground to evade a drug charge, while Hayden pursued a long career as a state legislator in California.
As to whether Sorkin has taken liberties with the dialogue in the trial, one would be forgiven for believing the dialogue hyperbolic. One would also be wrong. From the outset, the defendants and their lawyers decided this would be no ordinary trial. Rather than sitting quietly while the prosecution presented its case, they confronted the evidence loudly, consistently and humorously.
The judge played right into their hands, constantly demeaning the defendants and their lawyers, creating reversible error at every turn. Examples abound. Some are simply petty. In the movie, the judge once or twice mispronounces the name of Bill Kunstler’s co-counsel, Leonard Weinglass. In fact, he at various times called him Weinstein, Feinglass, Weinberg, Weinramer, Weinrob, Weinruss, Weingrass, Weinwer and Weinrass.
In perhaps the most chilling scene, Bobby Seale, the only Black defendant, is bound and gagged in front of the jury for protesting that his chosen lawyer was not present. One would be hard-pressed to believe a federal judge would do that, but Judge Hoffman did. Both in the movie and in the real courtroom. Hoffman’s instructions to the marshals to take Seale into a room and “deal with him as he should be dealt with in this circumstance” seem too obviously villainous to be true to life. They are not; it is a verbatim quote.
What then can we learn from the trial and the era? First, no matter how powerful the forces of repression are, collective actions bear results. Demonstrations, which continued despite the kind of police abuses and selective prosecutions depicted in Sorkin’s film, were instrumental in ending the Vietnam War.
Second, we can learn that our democracy will not long tolerate repressive regimes. Richard Nixon’s obsession with winning reelection produced Watergate and his eventual downfall. Third, elections do matter, and brave senators from a president’s party can effect change. When the details of Nixon’s scheming were revealed in the Watergate hearings, Republicans like Barry Goldwater
abandoned him and advised him to resign. Senators today might heed that lesson
Finally, and perhaps most telling, for each of us, our actions today will be studied decades from now. If we want to be on the right side of history, we should act with the integrity that allows our children and grandchildren to have pride in how we faced outrageous government behavior. History will remember, and perhaps Hollywood will, as well.