The Trial of the Chicago 7 Aaron Sorkin (USA; 2020) Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Sacha Baron Cohen, Mark Rylance, Eddie Redmayne
viewed Jamjar Cinema, 10 Oct 2020; ticket £7
The panto never ends…
Aaron Sorkin’s opening montage of archive footage establishes the era. The Trial of the Chicago 7 is set against 1968, the year of the murders of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, the year of President Johnson’s decision to once again massively increase US armed forces in Vietnam. ‘68 was the year of revolution right across Europe but it also witnessed the massive demonstrations that took place in Chicago to protest against the selection of Hubert Humphrey as Democratic Presidential candidate, a candidacy that had not committed itself to oppose the Vietnam war. And it was in relation to these Chicago events that charges of conspiracy and incitement were brought against seven key anti-establishment figures.
Sorokin’s scenario from the start points directly to the fact that the decision to charge the Chicago Seven with conspiracy and incitement to riot was political. The opening sequence of the movie after the archive section, locks onto the political decision to punish and intimidate Hoffman Hayden Rubin Dellinger et al, and incriminate them for the Chicago riots, riots which the FBI had already established were caused by the Mayor Daley’s police. The decision to take use and manipulate the legal system for the purpose of punishing and crushing opposition to the war, was taken at the top of the political hierarchy by President Nixon. A decision taken in the knowledge that the full resources of the state, its employees and all those to whom it gave patronage could be harnessed against these individuals.
It must have looked to Nixon like a sledge hammer cracking a nut. But the nut turned out to be of the steel variety and the sledge hammer made of rubber.
Sorokin’s movie with its script based on the trial transcripts and given visual urgency with his searching probing steadicam, celebrates the ability of the defendants to turn the trial on its head and put to the sword of absurdity, the corrupt proceedings that took place in that Chicago Court room, exposing the lies and fabrications of both Daley’s and the Government’s witnesses, and the biased procedural decisions taken by Judge Julius Hoffman which were aimed at closing down defence lawyer William Kunstler’s ability to defend his clients.
Sorokin’s film is a feel-good romp through the proceedings, enabling us to cheer on the brave and the good, and hiss at the twisted individuals and parties trying to send our heroes to gaol. At this level it has a pantomime quality, which is OK, and is of course certainly analogous to the purposes of Rubin and Hoffman. But I was less happy with the way in which Sorokin wraps up his movie. We are now more than 50 years on from these events and look on them in the light of our times. It seems incredulous as we watch but we see that some among the accused, Hoffman et al, were found guilty and sentenced to 5 years prison. Sorokin to round off the film using text rather than drama, tells the audience that on appeal, the guilty verdicts were all dismissed and the defendants vindicated and free. But it’s as if Sorokin wanted his story, the pantomime to have a happy ending. Smiley. We can all go home and feel good that truth is vindicated. But this is a false feeling. Sending the audience out on a high is a manipulation. Because in the light of our times we know that this is not all the story or even the end of the story.
The drama section of film ends on one of the defendants reading out the names of some 2000 US servicemen who had died in action during the course of the trial. But what was to happen after the trial was the intensification of the war from the air, with terrible toll of death on the Vietnamese people and the use of agent orange, sprayed on the Vietnamese countryside, which is still today causing birth defects where it was dropped. The names of Vietnamese ARE not read out. The continuing destruciton of Vietnam by the US war machine is not recognised by Sorokin’s texts.
Also what remains unsaid by Sorokin, either in text or otherwise, is that those who were guilty simply got away with their actions. Life went on as normal. The judge, the whole of the political line of accountability got off scot free. From Nixon down through his whole administration and the Chicago political apparatus from Mayor Daley down, the people who had criminally manipulated and corrupted the criminal justice system to serve the end of punishing those who opposed them just continued as if nothing had happened. The American state, conducting the war continued to get away with it. This is not a feel good ending. The beasts got away with it.
And of course the beasts would continue to get away with it. What the Chicago trial revealed is that in Western democracies are undermined by their inability to hold to account the actions of the executive. Nixon it is true was brought down by criminal investigation, but Bush and Blair both conducted illegal wars, causing millions of deaths in those far away places for which they were not accountable. And Trump encourages home based terror of white militias and attempts to manipulate the judiciary. Since the trial of the Chicago 7, to date, we have lived in a political systems in the West, driven by profit and self serving policy that have unleashed terror and destruction upon the world without restraint.
This is the message of the the Trial. This is the lesson. Not that one would expect Sorokin to have spelt out all of this. But in his final texts to the audience at the end of the film, he might have pointed to the fact that the perpetrators of the pantomime trial we had witnessed were never held to account and they continued unopposed to conduct their terrible futile war.