Brett Morgen did an engaging job of presenting the trial of the “Chicago 7” in 2007, in his film Chicago 10 (he included Bobby Seale, William Kunstler and Leonard Weinglass with the seven, as they were all punished due to the trial). There seemed, however, to be a complete lack of interest in this film and its topic when it was released back then. Aaron Sorkin, however, as writer and director of The Trial of the Chicago 7, digs much deeper than Morgen was able to and presents a much more textured, complex and dramatic look at one of the most disgraceful abuses of justice in modern American history. He tries to balance the opposing characters somewhat, to reveal the different approaches toward ending the Vietnam War and to show the moral challenges involved in a non-violent struggle against a system which seemed utterly corrupt and violence prone. Of course, he implicitly asks how much things have changed since then.
To balance things, there is, for instance, a concerted attempt to provide a sympathetic appraisal of the prosecutor Richard Schultz, whereas Chicago 10 made him look like a spineless opportunist oblivious to any moral concerns. In this film we meet Schultz as he is being offered the job of prosecuting innocent people with the full realization that this is a political hatchet job by the Nixon administration. Schultz knows that the Johnson administration had found no legal basis to prosecute these activists, points this out, but then tacitly agrees to use various devious pseudo-legal strategies to convict the defendants. In the film he begrudgingly takes the job under the pretext that he is serving the people. A cynic might say he takes the job because, like prosecutors the world over, he goes along to get along (did Sotomayor or Harris ever refuse to prosecute impoverished men of color or did they build their careers this way?).
During the trial Schultz clearly sees that Judge “Just” Julius Hoffman is throwing the case for the prosecution in the most overt manner and does not seem concerned. Yet, when Bobby Seale is beaten, tied to a chair and gagged, he seems to show some humanity by asking the judge to release Seale and declare a mistrial. In fairness to the truth, he had no objection to Seale being prosecuted without legal representation until that point. An attorney for the Chicago 7, William Kunstler, aptly points out that the prosecution had charged Seale to scare the jury with a Black Panther but had inadvertently turned him into a sympathetic character. I am not sure Seale was released due to the milk of human kindness of a sycophantic prosecutor and an apparently insane judge.
Sorkin also creates drama by establishing a tense relationship between Abbie Hoffman and Tom Hayden. We learn that Hayden had specifically asked for the attorney Leonard Weinglass because he does not trust Hoffman’s choice of Kunstler. We find numerous differences in ideology and approach to social change as Hoffman and Rubin are continually predisposed to theatrics and wide-sweeping ideological beliefs while Hayden wants to play the clean-cut, respectful American dissident. Hoffman even chides Hayden by asking him whether he had gotten a haircut just for the trial (he had). To Hayden, Hoffman is a self-aggrandizing clown who puts his own popularity before the movement. Hoffman seems to feel that Hayden knows theory but is too conservative as a person to ever really shoot for truly radical change (this seems borne out by history as Hayden took a seat in the California legislature while Hoffman was persecuted, set-up by the FBI for a drug crime and then forced to go underground for 6 years).
The film also shows how many of the defendants struggle to practice what they preach. David Dellinger punches a court security guard in a fit of frustration even though he has espoused non-violence his entire life. When Renny Davis is beaten by the police, Hayden, in anger, makes an ambiguous statement to a crowd that seems to encourage bloodshed in the streets of Chicago. This becomes, as it were, the trial within a trial – as the Chicago 7 continually are challenged to face the consequences and the motives of their actions according to their own lights as much as they challenge each other and the world to examine their actions and to choose a humane way to change things. The film does a good job of showing conscientious people struggling with themselves as they struggle against an unjust war and corrupt system.
The attempt to humanize Schultz and create drama between Hoffman and Hayden seemed to be deliberate Hollywood choices to juice up the script and there are other minor flaws in the film. Nevertheless, Sorkin has done a better job of anyone in exposing how easy it was, and perhaps is, to twist justice around a political agenda and to persecute those who are unpopular or truly seeking radical change in an effective manner.