Review – The Trial of the Chicago 7

NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Friday, November 6th. You’re listening to WORLD Radio and we are so glad you are! 

Good morning. I’m Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: Megan Basham has a review of a hit new political drama.

AUDIO: [Chanting]

MEGAN BASHAM, FILM CRITIC: Riots, destruction, grandstanding for the camera. Radicals co-opting civil rights protests to advance their own agenda. Sounds like the last few months, doesn’t it? Actually, it’s the setting for Aaron Sorkin’s latest movie, The Trial of the Chicago 7.

CLIP: What if the police start hitting you? Why would the police start hitting me? What if they do? I’ll duck. David, he watches the news. I’ve organized 100 protests, this one will be no different in that it almost certainly won’t work. The police… I’m not worried about the police. I am worried about Hoffman and Rubin. It’s the Democratic National Convention, honey. Every camera in America is going to be pointed at it.

The film is based on the real 1969 court case that saw a group of young radicals charged for inciting a riot at the Democratic National Convention. It proves that the man beloved for his long-running drama series, The West Wing, is still a master at creating tight political drama. And yes, he still knows how to serve up those famous “walk and talk” scenes his fans love.

As he did with the movie, A Few Good Men, Sorkin makes the most of big personalities and the conflicts between them.

We have the fiery Black Panther leader, Bobby Seale.

CLIP: I’m tired of hearing that. I couldn’t care less what you’re tired of. What did you say? I said it would be impossible for me to care any less but you are tired of. And I demand to cross examine the witness.

The Falstaff-style jokester Abbie Hoffman.

CLIP: And the record should reflect the defendant Hoffman and I are not related. Father, no. Mr. Hoffman, are you familiar with contempt of court? It’s practically a religion for me sir.

The serious political operative, Tom Hayden.

CLIP: I don’t know what good it does to insult the judge in view of the jury, the press, and Foran and Schultz, who will recommend sentencing if we are convicted.

What’s missing from the story is a sense of complexity. Any hint that Sorkin can still see the point of view of those on the other side of the political aisle has disappeared.

Now, making mustache-twirling villains of the opposition isn’t a first for Sorkin. Jack Nicholson’s Colonel Jessup was fairly over the top. But Jessup was effective because had a motivation that resonated on some level even with those who see the world differently. Most do sort of want a bad guy like Jessup with a gun guarding us against worse guys.

Here, on the other hand, the Justice Department just seems offended by the sight of long hair.

One scene is so simplistic it would be embarrassing for an after-school special.

Complete with soaring music, cheering crowd, and a blustery old judge in the mold of Dean Wormer from Animal House calling for order. It’s clichéd, silly and disappointing from a writer/director who’s shown he’s capable of much better.

CLIP: Your honor, since this trial began, 4752 U.S. troops have been killed in Vietnam. And the following are their names. Private first class Dennis Walter Kip, 18 years old. Private Eric Allen Bosch, 21 years old. Mr. consular. Lance Corporal Robert Earl Ellis, 19 years old. Mr. consular. He will not read 5000 names for the record. There will be order. There will be order.

In fact, the cause of law and order is so caricatured, it falls to disagreement within the seven to bring the ideological heat.

Hayden and Hoffman clash throughout about how to advance the cause of the cultural left. Hayden believes in doing it through elections. Hoffman through fame and the force of personality. Hayden wants to make it respectable for the suburbs to vote for their side. Hoffman wants to lead the young and cool on a merry dance through the streets like the Pied Piper. 

CLIP: What’s your problem with me Hayden? I really wish people would stop asking me that. Answer it. One time. All right. My problem is that for the next 50 years when people think of progressive politics they’re going to think of you. They are going to think of you and your idiot followers passing out daisies to soldiers and trying to levitate the pentagon. They are not going to think of equality or 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, foul-mouthed lawless losers, and so we’ll lose elections.

The problem is that while these debates are highly entertaining. They’re also entirely fictional. And Sorkin’s purpose with them seems to be to rewrite history.

Aside from their constant swearing, Hayden, Rubin, Hoffman and company are laughably wholesome. While the real Hayden openly approved violence as a tactic, writing in 1967 that it “can create possibilities of meaningful change,” here, he and his cohorts are always eager to prevent clashes with the police. When they challenge the authorities, it’s with trembling, pleading voices, not angry, defiant ones. Forget free love and anonymous sex, here Hoffman and Rubin are romantics, the defenders of women’s virtue.

If anything, portraying the seven in this light shows the extent to which conventional morals still hold the American imagination. Sorkin is smarter than the men he’s writing about. He knows if you want to win a national argument, you have to appeal to the middle.

I’m Megan Basham.


WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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