A true story of one of the most insane trials, only not true.
In August 1968, Vice President Hubert Humphrey was set to be nominated as the candidate for the Democratic Party. Eight activist leaders from various groups were in attendance when a riot broke out: Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen), Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong), Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp), David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch), Lee Weiner (Noah Robbins), Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne), John Froines (Daniel Flaherty), and Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II). After Richard Nixon becomes president, Attorney General John N. Mitchell (John Doman) tells prosecutors Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Tom Foran (J.C. MacKenzie) to prosecute the eight as a way to punish their protests. Aside from Seale, who is the only black Defendant and the head of the Black Panthers, the defendants are represented by ACLU lawyer William Kunstler (Mark Rylance) and Leonard Weinglass (Ben Shenkman). When the trial begins before Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella), what follows is one of the most bizarre trials in US History.
So, the story of the Chicago 7 (or 8, depending on if you count Seale) is one of those things that’s almost too crazy to be true. Much like the Scopes Monkey Trial, the trial of the Chicago 7 was never meant to be anything like actual prosecution. It was a political move by everyone involved except, perhaps, for the judge. Many of the witnesses, questions, and even actions by the lawyers were abnormal for any trial. Part of it, and something that the film does somewhat capture, was that the people on trial were largely doing this as a way to emphasize their message. Since this was 1970 and public perception was beginning to turn against the Vietnam War and almost all of them were part of anti-Vietnam groups, this publicized event was an easy soapbox and they mostly used it just to put on a spectacle, and, by court standards, it was a hell of a spectacle.
Unfortunately, apparently Aaron Sorkin didn’t think it was interesting enough, because he decided to screw around with it massively. So much of this film heavily fictionalized the events to make them more palatable, but also to try and remove some of the ambiguity from the trial. After all, we have to be rooting for the Chicago 8, regardless of the fact that they were a group of very diverse people whose only common ground was their desire to end the Vietnam War. Some of them did advocate violence as part of their mission, even though the film tries to make them all appear to be completely peaceful. The timeline of many parts of the story is completely rewritten in order to keep certain characters around longer. The most notable one is that Bobby Seale, whose dismissal from the trial resulted in the Chicago 8 becoming the Chicago 7, is kept in the trial for an additional 2 months so that there can be a scene announcing the death of Fred Hampton. In the film, Hampton is constantly at Seale’s trial, whereas in reality Fred Hampton was working on other stuff the entire period before his murder. I do think it’s interesting that two films (the other being Judas and the Black Messiah) involving the murder of Fred Hampton are nominated for Best Picture, but this one forces it it.
My dislike of heavily fictionalizing stuff like this comes from the fact that it’s done to make a story easier on the audience. Hell, they even make Richard Schultz much more affable towards the defendants than he was in real life. It’s even more annoying in court films because there is a literal transcription of this entire trial that can be used as a source. Instead, Sorkin focused on trying to make it an easily consumable morality tale in which the good guys win and everyone is now united on that page.
The performances in the film are solid, particularly Sacha Baron Cohen as Abbie Hoffman, who is both a stand-up comic narrating parts of the film and also one of the sassiest people to ever be put on trial. Frank Langella is great as the overly irritating and often infuriating Judge Hoffman, because he makes him easy to hate without falling into a stereotypical racist judge character.
Overall, it’s not that it’s a bad movie, it’s that it personally irritates me by its choice to inaccurately portray these events just to make it easier to pick a side. History is complicated, and our obsession with making it more black-and-white just makes people think less when dealing with reality.
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