Aaron Sorkin Sanitizes the Chicago 7Breaking News
tags: film, 1968, radicalism, antiwar movement, Abbie Hoffman, Chicago 7, Yippies, Aaron Sorkin
I confess that I was disheartened when I first heard that Aaron Sorkin, best known as the creator of the TV show The West Wing, was writing and directing a film about the trial of the Chicago Seven. Although much celebrated not just for The West Wing but for his scripts for films like A Few Good Men (1992) and The Social Network (2010), Sorkin struck me as having the exact wrong sensibility for telling the story of radicals fighting the legal system. Spanning the years 1969 and 1970, the Chicago Seven trial involved the federal government trying to convict seven anti-war radicals (Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, David Dellinger, Tom Hayden, Rennie Davis, John Froines, and Lee Weiner) along with Black Panther leader Bobby Seale (whose case was eventually treated separately). All stood accused of fomenting riots during the 1968 Democratic convention. The trial was extremely controversial and polarizing, with many shocking moments, most notoriously when Judge Julius Hoffman ordered Seale shackled and gagged after the defendant repeatedly tried to represent himself in court.
I thought Sorkin was the wrong writer for the job because the Chicago Seven trial is about the deep divisions in American politics, while Sorkin himself has always been celebrator of consensus and civility. The West Wing was a fantasy of bipartisan reconciliation, featuring a liberal president named Josiah Bartlett who found ways of winning over conservative opponents.
As Luke Savage noted in Current Affairs, in The West Wing “Republicans come in two types: slack-jawed caricatures, and people whose high-mindedness and mutual enthusiasm for Putting Differences Aside make them the Bartlett Administration’s natural allies or friends regardless of whatever conflicts of values they may ostensibly have.” In one episode, the Democratic president gets a Republican-dominated Senate to agree to a liberal Supreme Court justice by offering a deal: He guarantees that the next Supreme Court nomination (expected to open up soon because one justice is elderly) will go to a conservative. The limits of Sorkin’s political imagination can be seen in the difference between this imaginary Washington of mutually beneficial cooperation and the way the real GOP has ruthlessly gamed the system to get what will soon be a 6-3 Republican court.
How could someone as committed to the fantasy of American national unity possibly do justice to a story of radicals like Seale and Hoffman who questioned the very validity of the political system?
My misgivings were misplaced—at least in part. Sorkin’s new movie, The Trial of the Chicago 7, currently streaming on Netflix, is in fact very entertaining and shows a greater complexity than his earlier work. The film does a credible job of tracing the trajectory of the trial and highlights the ideological differences between the defendants, with Hoffman (charismatically performed by Sasha Baron Cohen) standing as the leading advocate of in-your-face confrontation while Tom Hayden (played as inward-looking and cerebral by Eddie Redmayne) serves as the voice of trying to work within the rules of system. Surprisingly, Hoffman comes across as the more appealing of the two: He’s warm and has a sharp understanding that a political trial demands revolutionary theater. The film’s Hayden, who has politics that are closer to Sorkin’s own, seems cold and calculating, although he is also the only character who has a narrative arc. Through the course of the movie, he comes to appreciate Hoffman’s more radical politics.
But Sorkin is able to achieve this positive view of the New Left only by sanitizing and romanticizing the historical record. Sorkin takes many liberties with the facts, most of which are designed to make both the New Left and its conservative opponents more palatable to contemporary liberal viewers.