Aaron Sorkin’s Chicago 7 Are Shockingly Sympathetic, but Lacking Radical Substance

The Trial of the Chicago 7 is surprisingly good for an Aaron Sorkin production. But the artistic liberties he takes with the historical facts, particularly around downplaying or leaving vague the protagonists’ radical politics, tell you a lot about Sorkin’s own blind spots.

Still from The Trial of the Chicago 7, 2020 (Netflix).

Aaron Sorkin’s straight-to-Netflix movie The Trial of the Chicago 7 is better than it has any right to be.

The plot is loosely based on the trial of Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Tom Hayden, Rennie Davis, David Dellinger, Lee Weiner, and John Froines for their role in planning the protests at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968. (Black Panther Party cofounder Bobby Seale initially made eight.) Chicago mayor Richard M. Daley’s police department used brutal police tactics that turned the initially peaceful protests into riots. Richard Nixon’s Justice Department then used the fact that Hoffman, Rubin, and the rest had crossed state lines while organizing confrontational protests as an excuse to charge them with “conspiracy” and “incitement to riot.”

Neither the seven white leftists on trial in Chicago nor Seale and his fellow Panthers are the kinds of protagonists anyone familiar with Sorkin’s work would expect him to portray sympathetically. The TV show with which he’s most associated, NBC’s long-running The West Wing, was about a centrist liberal president prone to make speeches so eloquent that they reduced both Republicans and unrealistic progressives to silence. One of the main characters, Josh Lyman, was based on Rahm Emanuel — and he was one of the good guys!

Here’s how Luke Savage described the show last year.

The West Wing universe … is one in which an idyllic, two-term liberal presidency warmly embraces the military-industrial complex, cuts Social Security, and puts a hard-right justice on the Supreme Court in the interests of bipartisan “balance” — all the while making no observably transformative changes to American life. What matters most is how politics look and feel and whether the briskly striding people who staff the corridors of power possess diplomas from the right schools. Idealism, such as it is, has more to do with an abstract faith in American institutions and their inherent greatness (as in, “America is already great”) than any particular desire to make the world a better place or see a coherent set of values reflected within them. In Sorkin’s parochial fantasy, politics at its noblest and most high-minded consists mainly of wonkish sophistry and elegantly crafted speeches designed to offer vague comfort while saying nothing.

The only time I can recall protestors being depicted on The West Wing, in the second season episode “Somebody’s Going to Emergency, Somebody’s Going to Jail,” their function was to be set straight on the virtues of free trade by White House staffer Toby Ziegler. The treatment of Occupy Wall Street activists in Sorkin’s more recent show The Newsroom was, if anything, even more condescending.

The biggest surprise of The Trial of the Chicago 7 is that the movie so clearly sides with the protestors. Sorkin dramatizes the brutality of Mayor Daley’s police-state tactics. He uses his considerable talent for crafting dialogue and executing story-telling beats to show what the “conspirators” were put through in Judge Julius Hoffman’s courtroom as the show trial that it was. He even portrays two of the most important defendants, Abbie Hoffman and Tom Hayden, as basically admirable and morally serious people.

Historically literate leftists will, however, be rightly annoyed to see how Sorkin has to re-envision what happened in Chicago to reconcile his sympathetic depiction of the protestors with his centrist worldview.

What Happened in Chicago

As Sacha Baron Cohen’s Abbie Hoffman rightly insists throughout the movie, it was a political trial. This was most obvious in the case of Black Panther Party chairman Bobby Seale. Hoffman, Hayden, and the rest at least really did spend days protesting in Chicago after months of planning. Seale flew to Chicago as a last-minute replacement for a speaker. He spent all of four hours in the city during the Democratic convention.

The other seven defendants were represented by a legal team led by iconic radical attorney William Kunstler. Seale’s attorney was supposed to be Charles Garry. When Judge Hoffman refused Seale’s request for a postponement while Garry had gallbladder surgery, Seale asked to represent himself. This too was refused.

Seale firmly and repeatedly insisted that Hoffman grant him his constitutional right to be represented by the attorney of his choice. The Judge ordered that Seale be bound to a chair and gagged. Finally, Seale was separated from the trial of the white leftists and the Chicago Eight became the Chicago Seven. All of these horrifying historical details make it into Sorkin’s script, along with the murder of Chicago Panther leader Fred Hampton, who was shot in his bed during a police raid in 1969.

In a series of flashbacks depicting the protests themselves, we see police blocking the protesters’ path, trapping them so they have nowhere to march, attacking them with batons, arresting them arbitrarily, and — in a detail whose significance won’t be lost on any viewer who’s spent significant time at protest marches — removing their badges so they can’t be identified later.

So far, so accurate. Sorkin might tweak a detail here or rearrange the order of events there for the sake of dramatic structure, but all of this captures the most important parts of what actually happened in Chicago. The phrase “police riot” was first popularized to describe what happened there, and that’s how Sorkin portrays it.

The repression of the Black Panther Party by the American state wasn’t far removed from the tactics you might associate with a military junta in a country like El Salvador or Guatemala in the 1980s waging a dirty war against its political enemies, and that’s how Sorkin portrays it. Judge Hoffman was a prosecutor in robes if there ever was one, and that’s how Sorkin portrays him.

The important departures from the historical record start with Sorkin’s depiction of the actual prosecutor, Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). As Alissa Wilkinson notes in Vox, the actual Shultz was a “hard-driven ideologue” justly hated by the Left. Sorkin turns him into an “even-handed attorney” who ends the movie as, if not exactly a hero, at least “a Pretty Good Guy.”

This by itself is no big deal. This is a drama, not a documentary. Any historical movie worth much of anything as a work of art is going to prioritize telling a compelling story about interesting characters over depicting each individual exactly as he or she was. The Trial of the Chicago 7 doesn’t rise to the level of great art, but it’s possible to imagine a movie that did rise to that level making the same dramatic choice.

But Sorkin’s departures from the facts are interesting, and ultimately disappointing, not because historical dramas have to be journalistically accurate in every detail, but because his departures tell us something about how he sees the world — and because the limits of that worldview stop him from capturing the most important parts of the truth about the events of Chicago 1968 and its aftermath that he’s dramatizing.

If you hate spoilers, stop reading. Load up Netflix, watch the movie and come back.

Done? OK. You probably found some of what you just saw unsatisfying. Let’s break it down.

What Revolution?

Sorkin’s Schultz doesn’t want to take the case in the first place. He knows the cops started the riot, and while he dislikes the protestors for being “vulgar” and “unpragmatic,” he doesn’t think they broke any laws more serious than trespassing or lewd behavior. He’s a good soldier, though, and after the new attorney general under the recently elected Richard Nixon overrules him, he gives the case everything he has and gets his convictions.

The real Schultz is alive and willing to tell anyone who asks that none of that happened. But again: historical drama isn’t history. I can suspend my disbelief about Sorkin’s version of Schultz as long as what he’s doing makes sense for the character. The problem is that Sorkin’s middle-brow moralism demands that he divide the world into clearly good people and clearly bad people. Good people can be flawed to a point, but only if they’re unambiguously redeemed at the end of the movie. Sorkin is willing to throw believability out the window to make that happen.

The defendants who get the most dramatic attention are Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, and Tom Hayden. Hoffman and Rubin were cofounders and coleaders of the Youth International Party, better known as the Yippies. Hayden was one of the leading lights of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and the primary author of its famous Port Huron Statement.

Rubin is portrayed as naive, bumbling, hotheaded, and basically stupid. He’s there to be Hoffman’s sidekick and to show by contrast that Hoffman is an interesting and admirable person. The slow revelation of the layers of Hoffman’s character might not technically be a character arc, since it’s not clear how much Hoffman is supposed to have actually changed. But whatever it is, it’s compelling.

Hayden is basically sympathetic from the beginning. He doesn’t want to waste a lot of time on courtroom theatrics that might undermine their case. He got a haircut for the trial, a fact Hoffman scoffs at. He thinks about how the movement can reach out to the larger public.

Hayden’s arc in the flashbacks to the protests makes him just imperfect enough to be interesting and for the audience to be unsure who to root for in some of his confrontations with Hoffman. By the end of the movie, both men seem like basically serious people who deeply care about advancing their cause even if they don’t always know how to do that — a fairly incredible portrayal of radicals for Hollywood.

The problem is that we’re left with no real idea of what their cause is.

In an early scene, Hoffman uses the phrase “cultural revolution” and Tom Hayden snaps that “cultural revolution distracts from real revolution.” That much seems plausible given everything I know about the two men. The problem is that despite half a dozen uses of the words “revolution” and “revolutionary” throughout the movie, by the end, no one who only knew this history through Sorkin’s portrayal of it would have any idea what that meant.

When Abbie Hoffman finally takes the stand near the end of the movie, he’s asked about “overthrowing” the government and, sounding like one of the centrist technocrats valorized in The West Wing, he says that “in this country we do that every four years.” Asked under cross-examination whether that made Chicago one big voter registration drive, he says, “Yeah.” Anyone who knows anything about Hoffman’s actual politics is likely to be either laughing or rolling their eyes at this point.

But it gets worse. Asked whether he has “contempt” for the government, Hoffman says that “the institutions of our democracy are wonderful things” but that right now they happen to be “populated by some terrible people.”

The real Hoffman couldn’t have been clearer that he wanted to smash “the institutions of our democracy” into a thousand pieces and replace them with something more meaningfully democratic. But the testimony Sorkin puts in Hoffman’s mouth sums up the thesis of the movie. Sorkin is able to acknowledge that what happened at the Democratic National Convention and then at the trial was unjust because he thinks that Mayor Daley and especially Richard Nixon were terrible people. (Which, of course, he’s not wrong about, even if it’s a very incomplete explanation.)

A fact on which the movie puts tremendous emphasis is that President Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ)’s attorney general Ramsey Clark didn’t want to bring charges against the Eight. Nixon’s attorney general — and later indicted Watergate coconspirator — John Mitchell did. When Schultz meets with Mitchell at the beginning of the movie, LBJ’s portrait is being taken down and replaced with Nixon’s in the attorney general’s office.

Softening Schultz into a sympathetic figure prosecuting the radicals against his better instincts wasn’t just a dramatic choice. It was a reflection of Sorkin’s need to signal that the system is and was basically good — the problem was John Mitchell and a handful of other “terrible people.”

When the real Abbie Hoffman talked about “revolution,” it wasn’t a metaphor for voting. He meant literal armed revolution. The real Bobby Seale said things like this: “We do not fight exploitative capitalism with black capitalism. We fight capitalism with basic socialism. And we do not fight imperialism with more imperialism. We fight it with proletarian internationalism.”

The only political opinion you hear Bobby Seale express in the movie is racism is bad. In Sorkin’s hands, he and Fred Hampton — in reality, perhaps the most interesting figure on the New Left — barely have politics. The only politics beyond racism is bad that any of the white leftists are given begins with the Vietnam War is bad and ends with police brutality is bad.

Throughout the movie, Rennie Davis writes down a list of the servicemen who’ve died in Vietnam since the beginning of the trial. (Davis, by the way, looks very little like any of the pictures I’ve seen of the historical Davis and disconcertingly like the contemporary left-wing podcaster Virgil Texas. Make of that what you will.) At the end of the movie, Tom Hayden reads out the names. The rest of the defendants stand up in a show of respect. Absurdly, so does Schultz.

The real Tom Hayden went from being an SDS radical in the sixties to a Democratic California state assemblyman in the eighties. Hayden lectures Abbie Hoffman about how what matters most is winning elections and — sounding less like any version of Hayden and more like a ventriloquist’s dummy for Sorkin — he says that his problem with Hoffman is that “for the next fifty years” the memory of the Yippies will discredit “progressive politics.” (Not socialism. Not “the revolution,” even. Just “progressive politics.”)

Instead of responding by accusing Hayden of being a liberal who doesn’t understand the need for radical change, Hoffman’s defense is that since the Left doesn’t have any money with which to get the word out, he has to “stage stunts” so that the media comes with cameras and microphones. There’s no hint in this discussion that either of them was trying to achieve much of anything that went beyond the political vision of the Eugene McCarthy wing of the Democratic Party.

Sorkin’s Limits

Sorkin’s version of liberalism can certainly accommodate racism is bad and police brutality is bad. Even if he sees LBJ as basically one of the good guys, he has no trouble acknowledging in retrospect that the Vietnam War was at the very least a tragic mistake. So as long as his version of the Chicago Seven doesn’t have politics that go beyond those three points, he can reconcile his sympathy for them with his worldview.

Admitting that they really held politics miles and miles to the left of his would require either abandoning that sympathy or broadening his artistic perspective to accommodate a degree of moral complexity he doesn’t seem to be able to tolerate.

It’s a better movie than it has any right to be in the sense that Sorkin does a good job for the most part of telling the parts of the story that his politics and his limits as a filmmaker allow him to tell. The dialogue crackles, the dramatic turns are pulled off nicely, and the many ways that the movie vindicates the protestors at the expense of Judge Hoffman and the police make it viscerally satisfying to watch.

What’s lost is the point of it all. The radical politics that made these people tick, and that inspired the Nixon administration to throw the book at them, are retconned away.

Those politics can be acknowledged without glorifying them. The “New Left” that SDS, the Yippies, and the Panthers were all part of made all kinds of mistakes. They often seemed to be more interested in making the most dramatic possible statement of opposition to the many injustices of capitalism and imperialism than in thinking about a strategy that could actually do anything about it. They spurned electoral politics without having a plausible non-electoral strategy to offer. At their worst, they devolved into playacting fantasies of armed revolution against one of the best-armed and most institutionally stable states that’s ever existed. They had neither the patience nor the ideological perspective to engage in the long, slow, boring work of organizing (or even orienting toward) the working class.

But a filmmaker with better politics and a fuller artistic vision than Aaron Sorkin could have recognized that the defendants in Chicago didn’t have all the answers without losing sight of the admirable core of their commitment to a better world. I hope that someone who does have that vision remakes this someday. The flawed but passionately committed radicals at the core of Sorkin’s story deserved better.