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Aaron Sorkin’s moralizing liberal fantasy betrays the real ‘Chicago 7’

According to the lore provided to the press, the development of Aaron Sorkin’s new movie, “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” originated in 2007 when Steven Spielberg, who at the time was toying with making the film himself, summoned Sorkin to his home and urged him to write the screenplay for him. Interestingly, Sorkin had never heard of the trial, but to a certain kind of educated liberal possessing a working knowledge of its historic importance — and this, one must assume, includes Spielberg — a courtroom battle of ideas with nothing less at stake than the soul of America must have seemed to be a perfect match for his very specific talents.

Sorkin, after all, has dedicated his career to litigating our country’s ongoing political and cultural crises. His is the drama of the debate club and the courtroom drama is his ideal form. Since 1989, when his breakout play “A Few Good Men” premiered on Broadway, he’s dramatized his conviction that enlightened ideas tethered to reasoned argument have the power to sway the populace toward a greater commitment to the civic good.

And the trial of the Chicago 7 — or the Chicago 8, depending on who’s counting and how — is the mother of all courtroom dramas.

To understand why, one needs a bit of context: The men on trial had organized large protests against the Vietnam War to coincide with the 1968 Democratic Convention. The protests exploded in violence when the Chicago police force tried to shut them down (an event later determined to be a “police riot”). And after the Democrats lost the election, the leaders were arrested and charged with conspiracy to cross state lines “with the intent to incite, organize, promote, encourage, participate in, and carry out a riot.” The trial that followed was an attempt by the Nixon administration to show the citizens of our nation that the United States stood firmly against radical agitation of all stripes.

It was a show trial in the classic sense, political theater meant to affirm the government’s power. That it failed in this goal owes largely to the chaotic drama that transpired within the courtroom with, on the one side, Judge Julius Hoffman, an overbearing authoritarian presence incapable of hiding his prejudice, and on the other, defendants who used the trial as another stage from which to project their various political messages. If the government’s purpose was to put the counterculture on trial, the defendants used their wit and their argumentative skills to flip the script and put the establishment on trial, which is exactly the kind of thing that happens in almost every play, movie, or television episode Aaron Sorkin has ever written.

Is it any wonder, then, that as the George W. Bush administration and its War on Terror and extraordinary rendition and extra-legal Guantanamo Bay incarcerations and quagmire in Iraq and all the rest was supposed to be coming to an end, replaced (hopefully, then it seemed, inevitably) by either Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama, Steven Spielberg would turn to Aaron Sorkin to write a movie celebrating the anti-war activists of a previous generation? From the point of view of a successful liberal entertainer, there couldn’t have been a better man for the job.

Sorkin must have seen this as well. After he wrote a draft of the screenplay for Spielberg, the project fell through (as these things tend to do in Hollywood) and both men went on to focus on other work. Then, ten years later, with Donald Trump in office and the #Resistance on the rise and the #MeToo movement bringing another powerful man down nearly every day and every other type of political division you could think of again flooding the air like tear gas, he decided to make it himself.

The film he’s come up with is as committed to his vision of the higher ideals of our nation as anything he’s every made.

Sorkin is the best advocate for civic engagement our entertainment culture has produced since Frank Capra. He inspires with his morally passionate, hyper-articulate heroes, always ready — nay, eager — to sacrifice their self-interest on the crucible of their liberal principles. That they sometimes lose is part of the fun; it ennobles them and his audience along with them. There’s redemption, catharsis, in seeing the righteous martyred. The audience cheers through its tears because, though the hero lost, he was righteous, he was right on the merits, and that’s the thing that really matters.

“The Trial of the Chicago 7” does all of this. And it contains all the other usual Sorkinian tropes: The action mostly transpires not through action or change but through rapid-fire arguments over ideas. Every character, no matter how humble, has the entirety of Wikipedia crammed into his or her brain and they spool out, in jazzy little monologues, the historical and intellectual context of whatever it is they’re discussing in a given scene. There are powerful people who may sometimes be venal, but even then, are guided by deeply-held convictions. There are people with less power whose ability to make persuasive cases for their own beliefs are underestimated by the powerful. There’s that morally-passionate hero, a stand-in for Sorkin himself, who’s always clean-cut, always conflicted and misunderstood, yet somehow magnetic; he carries the moral truth in his body, it’s all he is, his whole personality, and when his meaning is finally understood, the false truths of everyone else in the story will melt and the world will be made whole. (In “Chicago 7,” this role is filled by the Students for a Democratic Society leader Tom Hayden, whom I will get to below). A pall of seriousness hangs over the whole thing, and why wouldn’t it — nothing less is at stake than the future of civilized society.

You’ve seen this film before. It’s “The Social Network.” It’s “A Few Good Men.” It’s Sorkin’s recent Broadway adaptation of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” It’s every episode ever of “The West Wing” and “The Newsroom” and even “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.”

The difference is that this time the subject under discussion is revolution. And oddly, for a film in which the heroes preach revolution in nearly every scene, “The Trial of the Chicago 7” turns out to be a passionate defense of the system they themselves are committed to overthrowing.

A large part of Sorkin’s appeal derives from the palpable sense one gets when watching his work that he stands for something. What he stands for is a set of beliefs that can best be described as the Democratic Party platform, that paradoxical alliance of meritocratic elitism, identity-based appeals for equal justice, comfort with the market, and faith that the institutions controlling our country — be they governmental, corporate, military, or legal — would be forces for the good if only the right people, the most intelligent, socially-conscious, and, most of all, liberal people, were guiding them. He’s the bard of the engaged Democrat and his body of work reaffirms the liberal’s faith in American Democracy’s value, in the system’s value, as a bulwark against tyranny, especially the tyranny of the Republican Party and the multitudinous oppressive strains it has come to symbolize in our society.

In this way, Sorkin’s artistry is that of a highly-polished propagandist.

Just look at “The West Wing,” his purest achievement. Throughout the long dark years of the Bush administration, this show’s weekly, wishful, alternate reality was the only solace for countless over-educated, professional-class people. The kind who read The New Yorker. The kind who watch “The Daily Show” and donate to NPR. The kind who felt a profound national destiny, so long deferred, had finally been achieved when Barack Obama was elected and saw this new leader as nothing less than the savior for our nation. I was, in many ways, among them.

I’m not so sure the Chicago 7 — the real Chicago 7 who were really on trial back in 1969 — would feel the same way about “The West Wing” or Obama, or Aaron Sorkin’s vision of progressive politics, though.

These men consisted of the leaders of three separate leftist factions” Dave Dellinger, Rennie Davis and Tom Hayden, movement leaders who ran the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam, known colloquially as the MOBE, and their close cousin the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), and focused their energy around traditional issue-based demonstrations’ Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, the figureheads for the Yippies, a bunch of anarcho-leftists, who used theatrics to agitate for a wild reevaluation of the relationship between society and the individual; and Bobby Seale, the national leader of the Black Panthers, who organized grassroots social services for African-American communities and advocated armed resistance against the Police. (The two final defendants, Lee Weiner and John Froines, were basically volunteers who’d enthusiastically shown up to take part in the protests.)

Sacha Baron Cohen and Jeremy Strong

Court Jesters: Sacha Baron Cohen and Jeremy Strong play Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin in “The Trial of the Chicago 7.” Image by Getty Images

What united the Chicago 7 was their shared desire to end the Vietnam War. Beyond that goal, their beliefs veered and diverged. The Yippies talked a lot about “freedom” and, influenced by the French Situationists, the Dutch Provo and the San Francisco Diggers, aimed to turn our society on its head and reveal all the ways our behaviors are controlled by an unquestioning submission to assumptions about ethics and morality that serve to entrench power in the hands of those who already hold it. The MOBE and SDS were more orthodox in their leftism (and tamer in their tactics); they used civil disobedience as a force for democratic change and agitated for a more egalitarian society outside the bounds of the traditional political party system. If the Yippies were anarchists, SDS, as their name suggests, aspired to be a more organized operation consisting of a network of chapters with agreed upon stances relating to a great many leftists concerns.

As Abbie Hoffman said on the stand when asked directly if they’d “entered into an agreement…to come to the city of Chicago for the purpose of encouraging and promoting violence:” “An agreement? We couldn’t agree on lunch.”

Both groups were committed to their hard-left visions for the country, though, and, notably, both were cynical about the Democratic Party’s interest in realizing these visions. The politics of “social justice” hadn’t yet been severed from economic politics and, notwithstanding Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, the Democrats hadn’t yet mastered the art of pandering to people’s identity-derived anxieties and fears.

Also, the Democrats were the party responsible for starting the war.

The Chicago 7 descended on Chicago not to condemn the Republicans but to condemn the Democrats. They were truly radical and, in many ways, their beliefs still are. No embittered former Hillary Clinton supporter could say with any sincerity that she agrees in principle with their goals. Joe Biden’s not selling what these guys agitated for. The closest we have is Bernie Sanders, and like Eugene McCarthy before him, Bernie’s been vanquished.

This is inconvenient for Sorkin’s purposes. If his aspiration is to use these radicals and their beliefs as proxies for the #Resistance and its principled outrage at the Trump administration, Sorkin, the good liberal with his particular talent for inspiring people to retain their faith in a more perfect union, has to find ways both to reimagine the Chicago 7 as people concerned with respectability politics and inoculate the Democratic Party (our ersatz liberators) from blame.

In this, he succeeds.

Within the opening scenes of the film, Sorkin shows Richard Nixon’s attorney general, John Mitchell, demanding the trial as an act of vengeance against Ramsey Clark, Johnson’s AG, who, he claims, stonewalled the transition between the two administrations. In framing his story this way, Sorkin accomplishes two things. He distracts from the fact that the protests and their attendant police riots occurred on the Democrats’ watch and he shifts the conflict from one between the American government and the radicals who were on trial to an intra-party feud in which the Democrats can be seen as taking the high road.

Later, he doubles down on this message. When the defense decides to call Clark as a witness, the lead lawyer, William Kunstler, along with Hayden (who always seems to appear alongside his lawyer whenever Sorkin needs to show his defendants as eager participants in the political system), visits his house to ask him to come to their rescue. Clark agrees to do so. “What I want to know is how it took you so long to realize that I’m your star witness,” he says.

A scene or two later, Clark takes the stand and, in soaring Sorkinian rhetoric, makes the case that the defendants are being unfairly persecuted. His testimony is given in a closed courtroom and the judge, hearing Clark’s unassailable condemnation of the proceedings, strikes it from the record. This really happened (minus the soaring) but Sorkin’s message here isn’t about what was said, it’s about who’s saying it — there’s ample evidence everywhere in the film for the case that they’re being unfairly persecuted, starting with the fact that the film exists at all (to say nothing of the multitude of scruffier, less partisan witnesses for the defense, such as Allen Ginsberg and Arlo Guthrie and Norman Mailer and Dick Gregory, all of whom made much the same case but none of whom are deemed as important for Sorkin’s purposes as Clark). What he wants you to know is that the Democratic Party consists of reformers who would never carry out an unfair prosecution of this sort, and that Republicans will do anything they can to suppress the public’s ability to learn the truth about the Democrats’ righteousness. To which I say…really? Tell that to Edward Snowden or Julian Assange or Chelsea Manning.

As for the defendants themselves, Sorkin’s sympathies lie squarely with the MOBE and, particularly, with Tom Hayden. He cleans Hayden up. Gives him a haircut. Casts no less an avatar for straight-laced ethical kindness than Eddie Redmayne in the role. He presents Hayden, in temperament as well as thought, not as the firebrand he was in 1969 but as the budding politician he became later, when he turned to electoral politics and tried to reform the system from within. (Throughout the 70s, 80s and 90s, Hayden served as both a State Assemblyman and Senator in California.) In other words, Sorkin turns Hayden into Aaron Sorkin.

Against this voice of reason — for Sorkin must always have a foil to debate his hero and tease out the parameters of his argument — Sorkin pits the Yippies. He sets Jeremy Strong up to play Jerry Rubin as a spaced-out Tommy Chong in war paint, dismissing Rubin out of hand, but he can’t ignore Abbie Hoffman and the comedy act he turned the trial into. So he casts Sacha Baron Cohen, our own generation’s wicked moral prankster, and runs through the greatest hits — the stand-up tour Hoffman did on weekends, the quips and one-liners Hoffman lobbed throughout the trial, the donning of judges’ robes to wind up the judge — as though getting a laugh was all Hoffman was really after.

With this, the terms are set. It’s a battle of moral seriousness versus sophomoric hijinks and we get scene after scene of Hayden lecturing Hoffman about the importance of trusting the legal system to uphold justice, doing the leg work to build a solid defense while Hoffman is off hustling for laughs on college campuses, complaining to anyone who will listen about Hoffman’s narcissistic love of being in front of the camera, and generally wishing Hoffman, the cool kid, would respect him, take him seriously, stop laughing at him, and see, finally, that he’s right.

In the film’s emotional climax, the two men air it all out. Again with the soaring Sorkinian rhetoric. By focusing on the psychodynamics of Hayden and Hoffman’s relationship, Sorkin is able to replace the political underpinnings of their very real differences with a debate between his, Sorkin’s, beliefs and Abbie Hoffman’s. Hayden-Sorkin calls Hoffman a charlatan whose hippie-do publicity stunts will be all anybody ever remembers about the movement in 50 years (meaning right now—you see what he did there?). “If we follow you,” Hayden-Sorkin says, “we’ll lose elections.” (Never mind who this we exactly is or what elections have to do with revolution.) Hoffman tells Hayden-Sorkin, essentially, that the media circus he creates around himself is paying for the trial and that Hayden-Sorkin’s belief in the system is naïve and possibly disingenuous, at which point Hayden-Sorkin loses his temper and in walks daddy in the form of William Kuntsler, bearing bad news: A tape recording has just been entered into evidence. They’ve caught Hayden, the peacenik, in the act. He’s no longer mouthing Sorkin’s opinions about the utility of political activism but instead advocating for violence.

By Sorkinian standards, intellectual inconsistency is tantamount to a fatal flaw. It cannot stand. Turns out, when Hayden said “If blood is gonna flow, let it flow all over the city,” he actually meant “If our blood is gonna flow, let it flow all over the city.” He’s been misconstrued, and now, thanks to a technicality, he’s redeemed. So we the viewers, along with the other characters, ache for Hayden (who’s transformed again into Hayden-Sorkin), our fallen, now, tragic hero.

In a classic Sorkinian reversal, Hoffman’s the one who explains to the assembled that Hayden consistently drops possessive pronouns and uses vague noun modifiers. How does he know? Because he’s Hayden’s biggest fan. “I’ve read everything you’ve published,” he says. And feeling validated, Hayden sees that Hoffman may indeed have a brain after all. There are meaningful stares, reconciliation. They see each other. All is forgiven.

It goes without saying that this conversation never happened, but it sure does make Sorkin’s case for him. Hayden-Sorkin’s belief in the electoral process and the system it sustains is affirmed. Even Abbie Hoffman secretly agrees.

Join the system. Join the system. Join the system.

Just to be sure we get it, Sorkin concludes his film with the defendants in the case — each and every one of them — standing in somber reverence as Hayden reads out the names of our patriotic fallen dead. There’s nary a Viet Cong flag in sight, but it sure swells the heart.

Meanwhile, here’s Abbie Hoffman, the real one, explaining to the judge what he and Hayden really thought of the system in 1969:

“I remember when we were speaking before, you said, ‘Tom Hayden, you could have had a nice position in the system, you could have had a job in the firm.’ We have heard that for the past ten years, all of us have heard that. And our only beauty is that we don’t want a job. We don’t want a job there, in that system. We say to young people, ‘There’s a brilliant future for you in the revolution. Become an enemy of the State. A great future. It will save your soul.”

Revealingly, Sorkin treats the Bobby Seale strain of the trial, if not more accurately, at least more seriously. He lets the man talk and talk and talk, giving impassioned speeches about racial justice. He jimmies the timeline so he can tie the police killing of Fred Hampton, another Black Panther leader, to the brutal moment in the trial when the judge demanded Seale be bound and gagged — see? This is what happens when Black men speak the truth. The Panthers believed in Black self-determination and strove to challenge, by force if need be, the U.S. government’s entrenched oppression and abandonment of African Americans. And Sorkin presents their case as morally righteous, free of the fumes of condescension that so often swirl around Sorkin’s renditions of people with whom he disagrees.

Why does Seale receive this respect when his co-defendants don’t? Maybe for the same reason places like The New York Times and The Atlantic give their imprimatur to the current generation of advocates for racial justice. Maybe because these institutions have made it OK. In the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, sympathy with the Panthers’ beliefs has returned to the zeitgeist. Our cultural bureaucracies (and the Democratic Party) have figured out how to fold much of the Panthers’ critique of power in America into the capitalist project and absorb it into their public images. Thus, the currents of mainstream liberal thought are more accommodating of (and sentimental toward) people like Bobby Seale and Sorkin can safely represent him and his beliefs without distorting them.

Which just goes to show that an advocate of the #Resistance, no matter how sincere, is a far cry from an enemy of the state.

The folk singer Phil Ochs, who was a member of the Yippies (if membership is possible within an anarchic confederacy of radical individuals) and took part in the protests in Chicago, performing on stage and procuring the pig the group mockingly tried to nominate for president, said, famously, that the problem with liberals is that they’re “ten degrees to the left of center in good times, ten degrees to the right of center if it affects them personally.”

Sorkin sits ten degrees to the left of center, and ninety degrees to the right of where the center was in 1969.

So does his movie about the Chicago 7. That it succeeds so totally in dramatizing the political stakes of our current debased moment while ignoring the beliefs its protagonists held dear says everything you need to know about what’s going right and what’s going wrong with what passes for protest now.

Joshua Furst is the author, most recently, of the novel “Revolutionaries.” He’s a contributing editor at The Forward.

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