How is it that a feel-good iteration of the great Show Trial of the ’60s, characterized by no little artistic license, makes for such satisfying viewing in the year 2020? Tiresome as it is to refract every significant mass cultural event, no matter its intention, through the disgusting prism of our Boomer-in-Chief, it cannot be avoided. Reaching back (once more) to quote Norman Mailer’s musings on the 1972 Republican convention that renominated Richard Nixon: the presidency is “a primitive office and inspires the tribes of America to pick up the modes and manners of their chief.”
This truth is more than obvious nearly a half century later and, actually, the Trump-Trial connection is hardly a stretch. The real Trial of the Chicago Seven (plus one) was great political theater, and Donald Trump is nothing if not a past master of the art. That said, Sorkin does a more than competent job of setting the table for the orchestrated Chicago police riot that wrecked the 1968 Democratic Convention (not to mention the Democratic Party). I confess to a nostalgic frisson but, really, it would take a Ken Burns full-court press to begin to evoke the political despair, frenzied rage, and universal delirium of the months leading up to the event that the underground papers would call Czechago.
Still a college kid, I had a menial job that summer in San Francisco, working in the Ramparts mailroom. So happy to be there, I couldn’t fathom why in late August the magazine’s entire staff cleared out for Chicago. It was my first time in California and Berkeley, where I was crashing, seemed like counterculture Heaven on Earth, complete with a nightly riot outside the Bank of America on Telegraph Avenue. I hitched to Big Sur and got busted for sleeping on the beach, reasoning that going to Chicago could only be what our revered Black Panthers termed “Custeristic” — and it was.
Only 5,000 demonstrators came to Chicago to join about as many locals. Mayor Richard Daley nearly doubled their numbers with 12,000 police on the streets and 6,000 National Guardsmen on alert. The Ramparts staff were but a fraction of a small media army. Still, Czechago was guerrilla theater on a grand scale (even if, unlike the convention, the riot was not televised live), and it got Richard Nixon elected.
Of course, plenty of people, myself included, thought Nixon seemed no worse and, from a revolutionary point of view, even better at dramatizing The Contradictions than his Democratic opponent, Vice President Hubert Humphrey. (We were wrong.) But Czechago, in concert with the Draft, also inflated the size of the American left to a degree unseen since 1932. That fall, Fortune warned that a million American kids identified with SDS. (Meanwhile, a recent graduate of the Ivy League school that he allegedly cheated his way into, Donald Trump was cultivating his “bone spurs.”) Thus, as Nixon’s first order of business, he and his advisors, doubtlessly led by FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover, concocted a show trial designed to destroy the New Left.
The Chicago Trial was actually two trials — that of the Black Panther Party chairman Bobby Seale and that of everyone else, as personified largely by the brilliant acid-head community organizer Abbie Hoffman, a Bugs Bunny given the great gift of an Elmer Fudd judge with the same last name. Sorkin gets Seale’s centrality (as did Jean-Luc Godard in his appropriately wacky, quasi-underground movie about the trial, Vladimir and Rosa). The real trial was Seale’s. No theatrics could match the spectacle of an African American man being shackled and gagged, although, of course, very few people actually saw it. (In this case again, the Revolution was not televised.)
The climax of the trials, as Sorkin realizes (but is helpless to fully assimilate as such since it occurred midway through), was the execution of Seale’s in-court advisor, Fred Hampton, the 21-year-old chairman of the Chicago Panthers. He was murdered in his bed along with another Panther leader, Mark Clark, when Chicago cops stormed his apartment — an incident that resonates with events of our own day. The state agenda was the destruction of Panthers. Everything else was show business. However pointedly hilarious, Abbie’s disruptive antics pale before Seale’s resistance and Hampton’s martyrdom.
The Trial ended in late February. By May, Bantam Books brought out a mass market paperback, The Tales of Hoffman, excerpting the Trial’s official transcripts, with an introduction by Dwight Macdonald that, among other things, described Judge Julius Hoffman as “wisecracking without wit, a combination of Torquemada and a Borscht-circuit tummeler.” Indeed, the Trial struck cinephiles like me as a gloss on the Marx Brothers comedy Duck Soup. Abbie even tried to get Groucho, a known opponent of the War in Vietnam, as an expert witness, and then, having failed in that, to portray Judge Hoffman in the movie of the trial that Nicholas Ray was shambolically attempting (Abby, Jerry, and Tom Hayden all auditioning for the role of James Dean).
With the exception of Jeremy Kagan’s 1987 HBO movie Conspiracy: The Trial of the Chicago Eight (in which, weirdly enough, I only now discovered that Abbie was played by a guy with whom I went to junior high school), all cinematic iterations of the Trial have centered on the two Hoffmans. Bret Morgan’s 2006 Chicago 10, an impure mix of documentary footage and rotoscopic computer animation, had a deliberate and irritating absence of context but a full appreciation of their courtroom antics.
As interpreted by Sacha Baron Cohen, Abbie looms over the film and especially over his sidekick Jerry (Jeremy Strong), often in conflict with straight arrow Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne), the eventual Jane Fonda consort and California state senator. (To get a sense of Hayden’s actual intelligence and relevance, read the afterword he contributed to the newly reissued version of the trial transcripts, Conspiracy in the Streets.) That Cohen was regarded as Abbie Hoffman’s heir is evident in the fact that he was already cast in the role when the movie was a Steven Spielberg project, brainstormed in the waning days of George W. Bush’s second term. (More bizarre is the fact that Will Smith was being bruited to play Bobby Seale.)
One would like to imagine that the mind-clouding feel-good nonsense with which Trial of the Chicago 7 ends, complete with prosecutorial change of heart, was conceived with Spielberg in mind. However, Sorkin’s record suggests otherwise. Grandson of an ILGWU organizer, he is a crusading showman in the mode of Stanley Kramer — a not untalented “poet laureate of idealised political discourse,” as Steve Rose called Sorkin in the Guardian.
Thanks to its source, Trial has some great dialogue. Sorkin is drawn to courtroom drama — witness his first hit, the screenplay A Few Good Men, and his triumphant, if pandemic-shortened adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird (surely the most advertised Broadway show in the history of MSNBC). One can see how the trashing of courtroom decorum that the Trial offered might have irresistibly appealed to Sorkin’s dark side. The problem is that, as an artist, Sorkin doesn’t recognize his dark side as his. This may be why The Social Network is so effective — Sorkin felt free to project an insensitive, paranoid, humorless Mark Zuckerberg as an Other. (By the way, the last time a newly anointed Time “Person of the Year” got the near–simultaneous Hollywood treatment was back in 1943: Joe Stalin, Mission to Moscow.)
As directed by Sorkin, Cohen lacks Abbie’s impish appeal and even appears to be a bit of thug. The film suffers for that, but even if Cohen appeared as playful as the original Abbie Hoffman, he is not the new Abbie Hoffman — and even if the Borat sequel were half as outrageous as the original or Brüno, that would not be so. For it is no longer possible to watch a mockery made of the law without thinking of more recent examples. The delightful stunt that Abbie and Jerry pulled in August 1967, provoking pandemonium on the New York Stock Exchange trading floor by showering traders with dollars bills, will live forever in the annals of American guerrilla theater. But that was then. The exceedingly unfunny dirty trick that right-wing pranksters James O’Keefe and Hannah Giles used a half century later to destroy ACORN dealt American democracy a serious, if not mortal, wound. (And let us not even mention Roger Stone.)
Unfortunately, the new Abbie Hoffman is the Great Distracter and Champion Disrupter, Donald Trump, a man who speaks truth to power in the mirror. Perhaps Sorkin has intuited this. Indeed, Abbie might have realized it himself. In an interview given shortly before his death in 1989, he remarked that “TV gets into your fantasy world. […] If you want to enter the fantasy world of America, which you have to because people watch seven hours of television a day and that’s how they get their information, you have to learn how to use it. It isn’t enough just to whack it as a medium.”
It might be argued that Sorkin too understands the medium. After all, his exercise in airbrushed Clinton nostalgia, The West Wing, enjoyed a healthy seven-season run, cracked the top 10 during the first year of George W. Bush’s reign, and won a record (since broken) 26 Emmys. But, take it from this boomer, compared to the psychological oxycodone served up by The Celebrity Apprentice, the fantasy put forth by The West Wing, not to mention The Trial of the Chicago 7, is but a moment’s sunlight fading on the grass.
J. Hoberman is the author of a number of books about cinema, most recently Make My Day: Movie Culture in the Age of Reagan (2019). For nearly three decades, he served as a staff writer and then later became the senior film critic for The Village Voice. Hoberman currently teaches in the graduate Film program at Columbia University.