I don’t think I ever enjoyed watching a movie that annoyed me so much as The Trial of The Chicago 7, Aaron Sorkin’s latest, streaming on Netflix.
It’s like eating a big bucket of buttered popcorn—tastes good going down but leaves your stomach aching an hour or so later.
Yes, I enjoyed the crackle and pop of Sorkin’s fast-paced dialogue, in which each super-smart character always comes up with just the right wise and witty thing to say in a flash. As opposed to realizing what you really wanted to say hours after you really wanted to say it.
OK, in the category of stuff you should already know . . .
In 1968, the Democrats held their national convention in Chicago, where Mayor Daley (the father, not the son) had his police beat the crap out of hippie demonstrators, plus a few reporters who got in the way.
One year later, President Nixon’s Justice Department added insult to injury by filing ginned-up conspiracy-to-riot charges against eight leaders of the protest.
And they all came to Chicago—to paraphrase the song—for a firsthand taste of criminal justice, Windy City style.
The five-month trial was a debacle on every front. The prosecutors mocked “justice” just by bringing the case. And the defendants mocked the prosecutors (and presiding judge Julius Hoffman) for pretending the trial had anything to do with actual justice.
If you want to read what really happened, there are countless books on the subject you can find at any public library. Or you can be like me and stay up late reading internet transcripts like the one featuring this cross examination of Hoffman by Richard Schultz, a prosecutor.
- SCHULTZ: Didn't you state, Mr. Hoffman, that part of the myth that was being created to get people to come to Chicago was that "We will fuck on the beaches"?
THE WITNESS: Yes, me and Marshall McLuhan. Half of that quote was from Marshall McLuhan.
- SCHULTZ: "And there will be acid for all"— that was another one of your Yippie myths, isn't that right?
THE WITNESS: That was well known.
- SCHULTZ: By the way, was there any acid in Lincoln Park in Chicago?
THE WITNESS: In the reservoir, in the lake?
- SCHULTZ: No, among the people.
THE WITNESS: Well, there might have been, I don't know. It is colorless, odorless, tasteless. One can never tell . . .
Funny stuff—as injustices go.
For the movie, Sorkin decides to rewrite history. He changes timelines, makes up dialogue, and just sort of fits what happened into what he wants to do.
And that’s my big problem with the movie.
Yes, yes, I know—it’s only a movie. And we’ve been conditioned to experience fantasy on the screen.
But we’re living in complicated times. Our president is a habitual liar. He cites fake news as real, calls real news fake, and calls the press “the enemy of the state.”
Meanwhile, the Republican Party is in danger of being overtaken by followers of the QAnon movement, a cult that subscribes to, among other things, the conspiracy theory that the government is run by a secret cabal of devil-worshipping pedophiles that Trump is battling.
A particularly bizarre fantasy when you consider that Trump was, for many years, pals with Jeffrey Epstein, a notorious pedophile.
And it’s not just the president and right-wing wackos who mess with the truth.
Right now in Illinois, the Fair Tax is being opposed by some of the richest men in the state, who have created a commercial that’s blatantly untrue. That says the Fair Tax threatens to tax retirement income.
They just made it up and put it out there. Hoping to scare retirees into voting against their own interests. (Fair Tax reminder—vote yes, everybody!)
Point is—truth is in short demand these days. So, I don’t think we can afford to tolerate a filmmaker, even a liberal one, rewriting history to fit his political agenda.
Just imagine how outraged you’d be if some right-winger created a movie in which Abbie Hoffman was taking orders from Ho Chi Minh.
My guess is that this movie is Sorkin’s attempt to repackage the anti-Vietnam War movement to make it more palpable to voters in 2020.
It’s like an Obamaian effort to win over swing voters in Wisconsin, Michigan, or Pennsylvania by emphasizing how much we have in common.
In the world of the Chicago 7 movie, there are no pro-war or anti-war people in America. Just Americans. Trying to do what’s right.
The movie turns prosecutor Schultz into a man of conscience torn about carrying out his prosecutorial duties and standing up against injustice.
The movie’s culminating scene is absurd. As the anti-war defendants read the names of dead U.S. soldiers, Schultz rises in support. As they all pay their respect to fallen heroes.
No such thing ever happened. Neither Schultz nor Thomas Foran—his prosecutorial partner—showed anything but contempt for the defendants and their courtroom antics. And the defendants didn’t show much love or respect for American soldiers. In fact, at one point, some of the defendants unfurled a North Vietnamese flag. (And, while we’re at it, President Trump recently called fallen war heroes “suckers and losers.”)
There’s also this exchange between Hoffman and codefendant Tom Hayden in which the latter accuses the former of turning off middle-American voters with his anti-establishment antics. It’s like he’s got the electoral college map in his mind.
The leading proponent of the strategy of moving to the center to avoid being tarnished by association with the left is Bill Clinton.
But Clinton wasn’t talking like that in 1969. He had shaggy hair and a bushy beard and he was doing everything he could to avoid getting drafted. Just like so many other people of his generation, including Donald Trump (“bone spurs,” wasn’t it?).
So, yes, all this kumbaya is a figment of Sorkin’s rich imagination. That said . . .
For the last few months, I’ve been chiding Democrats for not being like Republicans as they battle to win back the White House, the Senate, and so forth.
So, if Sorkin’s historical rewrite somehow convinces, say, Wisconsin swing voters to go for Biden? Too bad, Donnie—what goes around comes around. v