The Trial of The Chicago 7

A movie review by Ioana Paul

“If America’s soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read Vietnam”

Martin Luther King, 1967.

1954. Beginning of the Vietnam War. In focus are two main opposing forces: North Vietnam under the rule of a communist government, and South Vietnam represented by an unstable regime backed by the U.S. Following the end of French colonialism, the northern part of Vietnam aimed to turn the country to communism after the models of the USSR and China. Supported by the US first with financial aid and weaponry, the southern group started to fight back. This transpired until 1961, when President John F. Kennedy decided to expand the military program by sending US soldiers to fight in a war seen by many as a proxy for the Cold War. After the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963, President Lyndon B. Johnson was set to take over. He then engaged in what later turned out to be a manipulation of facts in order to legally justify further U.S involvement in the Vietnam War. By 1969 the number of U.S. soldiers sent to Vietnam reached 500.000.

1965. A strong anti-war movement started to form on university grounds. Scholars who were part of the Students for a Democratic Society began to openly criticize and question the participation of the U.S. in the Vietnam War. Soon after they were joined by artists and other intellectuals, most notably by the Youth International Party. The YIP was a colorful, theatrical, and radical group with members known as the Yippies.

August 1968. Chicago. The start of the National Democratic Convention. Facing extreme backlash for his war policy, President Johnson decided not to run for reelection. A new candidate had to be chosen. Meanwhile, in Grant Park, roughly 10,000 protesters were peacefully gathered, chanting to revolutionary songs and pleading for the end of the war. Their intent was to march towards the amphitheater where the National Democratic Convention was taking place. But what was meant as a peaceful demonstration against the atrocities of the war soon turned into a riot, as protesters and bystanders were beaten and teargassed by police.

But who started the riot?

Almost one year after the protest, eight demonstrators were indicted:  Rennie Davis and Tom Hayden –(Leaders of the Students for a Democratic Society), Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman (Leaders of the Youth International Party), David Dallinger (Leader of the Mobilization to End the War in Vietnam) and Lee Weiner and John Froines (local activists). The eighth member was Bobby Seale, the national Chairman of the Black Party. The accusation? Having crossed state lines in order to conspire and incite violence, a violation of the Rap Brown Law (a law originally passed in order to suppress the voices of black activists at the time of the civil rights movement).

“The whole world is watching”

And so the trial began and lasted for about five months. This historic event is beautifully depicted in the 2020 movie The trial of the Chicago 7 , written and directed by Aaron Sorkin. The film is a suspenseful thriller that alternates between the trial and the demonstrations from August 1968. With a clever mélange of fictional scenes and real footage, it perfectly encapsulates the not-so-distant past many of us did not witness.

The event is remembered as the Trial of the Chicago 7 because the eighth member, Bobby Seale, was later excluded from the trial. Accused of having previously killed a police officer in Connecticut, he was the only defendant in jail at the time of the trial. His legal representative could not be there for him, due to a health intervention, and Judge Julius Hoffman refused to grant him permission to represent himself. Falsely accused of planning the protest, he had only been in Chicago for four hours. Bobby Seale felt that he was not allowed to defend himself. In a state of complete helplessness, he accused the judge of being racist. The result was one of the harshest and most dehumanizing events that ever happened in an American courtroom. As “punishment for his misconduct”, Judge Hoffman ordered Seale to be bound, gagged and chained to a chair. Days later, the judge declared a mistrial for Bobby Seale.

“This is a political trial”

The movie is thought-provoking and incredibly well made, so be prepared for scenes that will stay with you long after the movie is over. The ways in which each character acts in the courtroom mirror different worldviews and attitudes towards the idea of a revolution. On one side, there are the leaders of the Students for a Democratic Society, Rennie Davis and Tom Hayden. They show respect for the judiciary institution even though they feel they have been wrongly indicted. They want to change the system from within and thus take up a career in politics. On the other side are the Yippies, namely Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin. They deliberatively fool around in the courtroom, make sarcastic comments, and mock the judge, even once wearing judicial robes. The whole idea of the trial for them is laughable in its absurdity. These two approaches clash in various key scenes throughout the movie, the most notable – a harsh dialogue between Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) and Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne).

“My problem is that for the next 50 years when people think of progressive politics, they are going to think of you, of you and your idiot followers passing out daisies. They are not going to think of equality and justice, they are not going to think of education, or poverty or progress. They are going to think of a bunch of stoned, lost, disrespectful, lawless losers and so we’ll lose elections. “

Tom Hayden to Abbie Hoffman

Another important topic is the clear violation of judicial principles. The courtroom is plagued by racism and Judge Hoffman is clearly biased towards the prosecution. The nature of the accusation is purely political: to silence the Cultural Revolution by locking up its key members.

“I have never been on trial for my thoughts before”

The writing is incredibly witty, with both funny and deep lines that leave you with goosebumps. The cast is amazing and the movie advances organically, with no moment of boredom. However, it’s hard to encapsulate such a complex historic moment in a two hours movie and so it is clear that much was left out. The characters are so intriguing, that each one is worthy of his own movie. Still, the film managed to stay accurate, both from a historical and legal point of view.

The U.S. withdrew from the Vietnam War in 1973 under the presidency of Richard Nixon, defeated, with loss of lives and a significant budget deficit. Two years later, the southern part of Vietnam fell under the control of the northern communist regime and the two were unified as the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.

It is estimated that approximately 2,000,000 civilians were killed during the war. 1,100,000 North Vietnamese, 250,000 South Vietnamese and around 58,300 U.S. soldiers lost their lives. Additionally, the war left an unstable environment behind, devastated by the heavy usage of defoliant chemicals like Agent Orange. The term “ecocide” was first used during the Vietnam War to refer to this deliberative environmental destruction. The land mines that are scattered over Vietnam endanger human lives to this day and the work to defuse them is predicted to last for roughly 100 years.

The movie “The Trial of the Chicago 7” captures one side of this complex historical event. It portrays the heavy tensions that escalated in the U.S. due to the involvement in the Vietnam War. I would say, it even goes beyond that. It makes you think of the perversion of the judicial system, of racism and of police brutality. Of the absurdity of wars and those who suffer the consequences. Lastly, it makes you think of revolutions.

So if you feel like watching a mind-boggling movie, then I highly recommend The Trial of The Chicago 7.