The Trial of the Chicago 7, by Albert W. Vogt III

Politics are strange.  I also find them to be headache inducing.  Despite what some who know me personally might think, I am not a fan of arguing, or confrontation of any kind.  When disagreements devolve to exchanging shouted words, or worse, nobody wins no matter who comes out on top.  Now, I do not want to give the impression that I am a push over.  I feel this blog is a testament of my willingness to stand for the things in which I believe.  It is important for Catholics to be able to exist in our society today, and I hope my reviews help them cope with at least some of the madness.  Still, rarely have I seen a serious argument result in truly changing hearts and minds.  For politicians, healthy debate is the arena in which they seek to win those hearts and minds.  In this Catholic’s view, one who also has a Ph.D. in American History, since the 1960s the United States has increasingly become a place where everything we do is political.  While I rail against this, identity politics underly the mission of The Legionnaire.  This blog is a passive argument for the viability of Faith in an increasingly corrupt modern world.  Getting to this point involves some sacrifices along the way, and The Trial of the Chicago 7 (2020) focuses on one event in that struggle.

As the title suggests, The Trial of the Chicago 7 is about several people who are in court, though it is also misleading. There are actually eight, and each one of them played a role in one of the darkest moments in American History: the riots at the 1968 Democrat National Convention in Chicago, Illinois.  Still, we actually start with the assistant Federal prosecutor tasked with putting the principal defendants in jail, Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt).  He is given the mission by newly elected Richard Nixon’s Attorney General John N. Mitchell (John Doman), who wants to send a strong message to the protestors and his predecessor that such actions are not to be tolerated.  From there, we get a series of vignettes that introduce each of those on trial and how they go to that point.  They are: Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) and Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp), leaders of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS); Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) and Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong), two of the founding members of the Youth International Party (Yippies); David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch), leader of the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam (MOBE); Lee Weiner (Noah Robbins) and John Froines (Daniel Flaherty), basically two patsies who were nonetheless dedicated to the anti-war cause; and finally the national chairman of the Black Panther Party Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II).  Each one of these eight came to Chicago in order to voice their objections to the Vietnam War then raging in Asia, a war that, at the time, seemed to have no point or end in sight.  What the government is charging these people with doing is inciting a riot while the convention went on, in other words, while the whole world is watching.  The judge in their case is the ancient Honorable Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella).  His senility is not the only problem.  He also seems predisposed against the defendants, particular Bobby Seale, who is repeatedly denied his Constitutional right to legal counsel.  Judge Hoffman is the primary antagonist in the film, and at one point he has Bobby Seale chained and gagged following yet another angry outburst over not only being tried with the others, but not being allowed to exercise his legal rights.  While this goes on, through the testimonies of various police informants who had been imbedded with the protestors, the events of those fateful days in the Windy City unfold.  Despite their stated intentions of simply wanting to agitate for a conclusion to the Vietnam War, the actions of the police increasingly appear designed to provoke the protestors into violence.  That, and the disagreements between Tom Hayden and Abbie Hoffman over how best to effect revolutionary change and Judge Hoffman not allowing the jury to access key pieces of evidence, makes their situation seem hopeless.  What brings them together is when their primary attorney, William Kunstler (Mark Rylance), receives a recording of Tom Hayden telling the protestors to spill their blood when he sees Rennie being beaten by the police. Though they had been riding the line between peaceful demonstrations and virtual anarchy, seeing his friend is what broke Hayden and from there the full blown battle erupts. Ultimately, it is these actions that leads to most of the defendants receiving sentences in Federal prison, although, as noted as the film closes, an appellate court overturned all their convictions.

When I taught classes in person, and it was appropriate to the subject matter, I would show footage from the events depicted in The Trial of the Chicago 7. There is none, to my knowledge, of the actual courtroom proceedings, but I give them recordings of the riots as they unfolded on the streets of Chicago. It was one of the darkest moments in American History. I do not like to get into politics in general, particularly on my blog. However, I do believe that Hollywood is left leaning, to say the least. I am not sure that is arguable, and many of my criticisms of their offerings are because my Faith is considered part of the right. I am not here to argue whether or not that is true. No matter who you are, I think you can look at the events depicted in the film with a bit of sorrow. While the police are certainly seen as “pigs,” using the parlance of the day, the protestors are not made out to be completely innocent either. While they all seemed to want to come to Chicago with peaceful intentions, even David Dellinger is punching a courtroom official before the film ends. To be clear, there were problems that needed to be addressed. Those in positions of authority, as embodied by Judge Hoffman, had become too used to being followed without question. It is just sad that it had to come to bloodshed, and you can feel the weight that such moments had on those on trial.

There is an interesting moment when Abbie Hoffman takes the stand in The Trial of the Chicago 7. He does so when Tom Hayden is incriminated by the recording. As a reminder, the main reason they are in this situation in the first place is because they are accused of conspiracy to incite a riot. Supposedly, they plotted these actions in other places, coordinated their travels, and brought these ideas across state lines. For those in authority, all they could see in these protestors is a threat to their way of life. Revolution, in other words, and and to be fair that is what they wanted. When Hoffman is testifying, he references Jesus as a man desiring change as well. He even goes so far as to discuss when Our Savior says that He has come to bring the sword, turning families against one another. To his credit, he goes on to say that subsequent lines from Matthew mitigate how threatening that sounds. The point is that when you are committed to a higher purpose, it tends to rub certain people the wrong way, and it can be those closest to you. Jesus saw this in his day in Israel, for as had been foretold about Him, He was a sign that was contradicted. I have seen it in my own family when I started earnestly practicing my Faith. You can disagree with some of the changes represented by a person like Abbie Hoffman, but you can at least commend him for sticking to his principles.

The Trial of the Chicago 7 is available on Netflix, and it is worth seeing. The subject matter is difficult, but the performances are good. There are a lot of stereotypes about the people involved in this event on both sides, yet the film does a good job of giving each representative of those groups a more rounded view. While Judge Hoffman is clearly the villain here, I was glad to see that Richard Schultz, the one prosecuting the protagonists, is a sympathetic character. It is definitely not a family friendly movie, but one that merits a view whenever you get a chance.

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