The Trial of the Chicago 7 is good drama, but I have to wonder at some of the choices writer/director Aaron Sorkin made.
The movie is based on a true story but it gets an awful lot of the facts wrong. It plays with the timeline, it assigns certain actions to individuals who didn’t do those things, and it leans in more than once on wholly manufactured drama. To me, the actual true story here is far more riveting. That’s why you need to go watch Chicago 10.
Brett Morgen’s 2007 documentary is a movie for people who don’t like documentaries. It sews together archival footage with animated courtroom scenes based on the trial transcript and voiced by a star-studded cast, with all of it driven forward by the beat of a soundtrack brimming with hard-charging protest music. There’s an energy here that you don’t often find in other docs.
The movie opens with moody ambient music and title cards paired with archival footage that set up the dismal situation in the United States of 1968. The Vietnam War has been raging for years, troop counts are increasing, and protesters are organizing around the idea of staging a massive action at the 1968 Democratic National Convention.
In the shaky black-and-white recordings that accompany this intro, we meet the two protest groups at the heart of the 1968 action – the Mobilization to End the War in Vietnam (“the Mobe”) and the Yippies – and several of the key figures in each who would eventually become Chicago 7 defendants.
Brett Morgen’s 2007 documentary is a movie for people who don’t always like documentaries.
It’s a subdued introduction that nonetheless sets the stage: There will be a protest, it will be big in the midst of dire times, and the two principal groups involved are coordinated by such magnetic figures as David Dellinger, Thomas Hayden, Rennie Davis, and Abbie Hoffman. Cue the title cards, cue news broadcasts detailing the chaos of the ’68 convention, cue…Rage Against the Machine.
The courtroom scenes in Chicago 10 are all animated in a style inspired by the trial’s original sketches. They feel messy and disjointed…sort of like the sham trial itself! But there’s an energy in these scenes that makes it hard to look away.
A lot of that has to do with the voices behind each player. Hank Azaria and Mark Ruffalo are our key Yippies, Hoffman and Jerry Rubin. Dylan Baker is Dellinger, who played a much larger role in the trial and the events that preceded it than Sorkin’s take suggested. (In contrast, Hayden, a key role in the Netflix movie played by Eddie Redmayne, has no voice actor.)
The list goes on from there: Nick Nolte as Justice Department prosecutor Thomas Foran, Roy Scheider as Judge Julius Hoffman, Liev Schreiber as defense attorney William Kunstler, Jeffrey Wright as Bobby Seale, James Urbaniak as Rennie Davis. It’s quite a cast, even if you never see them in the flesh.
As we shift back and forth between the animated sequences and real footage, mostly from the DNC protests and often set to music, a clear picture emerges. The Chicago Eight, as the group was known until Seale was severed from the trial following Judge Hoffman’s racist treatment of the defendant, was marched into a courtroom for political reasons.
They were tried and found not guilty, but most ended up in prison anyway because their behavior during this trial that should never have happened was met with contempt charges. If you’re not angry by the time the credits roll then you weren’t paying attention.
I’m not here to pit Chicago 10 against the Netflix movie. They both have their merits. But Sorkin’s take dramatizes a real event, manufacturing incidents and relationships that never happened (or which unfolded very differently) in the name of telling a story. That’s all fine and good if you want to sit down and just be entertained.
The documentary is also an imperfect document in some ways. It’s effective at capturing a particular moment and the events that led to it, but it isn’t exactly an even-handed account. The protesters weren’t always in the right, and the documentary has very little to say about how the Mobe and the Yippies contributed to any incitement, or how the chaos outside the convention in many ways led to to the election of Richard Nixon and, in turn, the trial. Sorkin’s movie explores this idea much more directly.
But Chicago 10 works as well as it does because it uses entertainment to educate. Behind the heavily stylized production that leans on modern protest music to draw unspoken parallels, there lies a carefully plotted document of what actually happened, from a particular point of view. There’s no need to animate footage from the ’68 DNC because the events that unfolded there in the streets of Chicago speak for themselves.
Many of the protesters really did show up with love in their hearts, preaching for peace and for an end to the drawn-out war. But they were met by a militarized police force that had been prepped for violence and used that vague threat to mete out their perverse interpretation of justice. The riot that ensued was largely the product of inappropriate official action, and it’s all there, clear as day, in footage captured by news cameras at the time.
The courtroom, on the other hand, was an animated place. When Abbie Hoffman took the stand, he really did answer the question “When were you born?” with “Psychologically, 1960.” He and Rubin actually showed up to court at one point wearing fake judicial robes, with fake police uniforms hidden underneath. The defendants knew they were being dragged into court for bullshit reasons, and they treated the trial with the respect they felt it deserved.
I’ve adored Chicago 10 for a long time because it’s the rare documentary that spices up what could’ve easily been a dry accounting of events. It eschews talking head interviews and other secondhand sources in favor of a firsthand account, and a portrayal of the trial that draws its script directly from what was said there.
Especially now, as modern society reckons with an overly militarized police apparatus that seems too willing to toss out our First Amendment right to protest, Chicago 10 is a resonant and important piece of work. You can watch it for free anytime thanks to Films For Action, but thanks to a very recent re-release, you can also now buy or rent it in HD from Amazon and iTunes.