The Trial of the Chicago 7 (dir. Aaron Sorkin, 2020) is a liberal daydream. Virtuous men face fraudulent accusations from a power structure—in this case, the Nixon controlled federal government—system controlled by the wrong people. But, their belief in the core American tenets of freedom and righteousness carries them through a turbulent judicial process before the tide of public opinion turns and their names are cleared. The good guys win, the bad guys lose, and American idealism gets to live another day. Sorkin’s film is a fantasy representing the hope that the sanctity of power structures withstands corruption. But, The Trial of the Chicago 7 isn’t fantasy. It’s a court case where eight men were accused of inciting a riot at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. These men railed against, and were eventually victimized by, the systems their film counterparts champion. In creating a dramatic interpretation that caters to his own ideals, Sorkin whitewashes the revolutionary beliefs of his subjects.
The film gives the characters the revolutionary window-dressing Sorkin’s Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) is a counterculture anarchist and his Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) is one of the leaders of the New Left, a youth movementIn the case of Hoffman, Chicago 7 uses his anarchism as a performative act that conceals his true reverence for America’s institutions. The audience does see some of the antics he would stage in the courtroom, like when he attends court dressed in judge’s robes before he removes them and reveals a police uniform with “PIG” emblazoned on it.1 His distaste for what he felt were the country’s systems of oppression is undercut when he says dialogue like “I think the institutions of our democracy are wonderful things that right now are populated by some terrible people.” Abbie Hoffman, the real man, was someone who wrote things in his book like “To steal from a brother or sister is evil. To not steal from the institutions that are the pillars of the Pig Empire is equally immoral (Hoffman).”
On the other hand, Tom Hayden becomes a quasi-moderate bridge between Sorkin’s liberal progressivism and Hoffman’s anarcho-leftism. One of the film’s primary arcs is Hayden and Hoffman surmount a fictional rift between their activist styles. Hayden thinks Hoffman is an outlandish buffoon pushing the anti-war movement too far left, while the Hoffman believes the Hayden is too obsessed with decorum and the status quo to ever inspire real change. But portraying Hayden as someone whose fear of offending the status quo came at the expense of inspiring real change is wholly inaccurate. One example of Hayden’s life ideological obstinance is his clashes with fellow far-left leaders Michael Harrington and Irving Howe over his refusal to disavow communism because of his belief that the American propagandizing of Anti-Communism had caused blind hatred of the ideology.
Although there are other examples of Sorkin whitewashing the revolutionary ethos of his subjects (Jerry Rubin is a burnout counterculture stereotype, the circumstances of Fred Hampton’s death are entirely glossed over), the portrayals of Hoffman and Hayden, the film’s leads, are indicative of the inaccuracies prevalent in Sorkin’s script. These inaccuracies extend past dramatic license because the licenses taken actively disfigures the beliefs of these men. Thus, the film loses the essence of the beliefs of the people it’s dramatizing. The real Chicago 7 would not recognize Sorkin’s caricatures of them.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 is streaming on Netflix.
Hoffman, Abbie. Steal This Book. 1971.