The Trial of Chicago 7 — When democracy refuses to back down

I was compelled to watch the new Netflix movie ‘The Trial of Chicago 7’ after listening to everyone rave about it. It was as promised, Sorkin at his best. Although the film was set in 1968/69, it felt more relevant today than any other time in history. I think it’s either a stroke of luck or a flash of genius that timed the release of this film to coincide with the pandemic and the multiple BLM and other protests around the world. The film is set in 1968 during the height of the 60’s counterculture movement and focuses on one of the seminal trials that came to define the era of anti-establishment protests and the fervor of anti-war sentiment that was blazing through the universities and youngsters.

To call 1968 a tumultuous year would be an understatement, that year saw not only the assassination of RFK but also of Dr. King and the Chicago riots that followed Dr. King’s assassination. Living room TV screens across the country were filled with vignettes of protests and war footage from Vietnam. In the midst of all this, Chicago was once again on national news when it was chosen as the venue for the 1968 democratic national convention where they were going to nominate Humphrey as the candidate to run against Richard Nixon. The anti-war protesters wanted to demonstrate outside the convention and the film captures how that attempt went south when violence (mostly incited by police) turned the whole “peaceful” protests into a shit-show and the subsequent indictments and mainly the Trial.

Since the meat of the film focuses on the trial itself, we need to understand what was going on around the world in the 1960s to appreciate the film. The 60s counterculture was a collective term that spawned or encompassed multiple movements including anti-war (Vietnam), sexual revolution, free speech, gay liberation (1969 saw the famous stonewall riots that kick started the LGBTQ rights movement in this country), feminism and hippie/alternative life styles. All of these have something in common, they are all anti-establishment, progressive and hated by conservatives who thought the new ideas are not only dangerous to the country, but a threat to the way of life as they knew it. But we can’t deny the effect of the crucible that the counterculture movement has a lasting impact in every aspect of our lives including Silicon Valley :). Most of the prominent figures (authors, actors, professors, thinkers) who were associated with the counterculture movement shaped the course of this country in their later lives. Even if those movements didn’t result in immediate results, they certainly moved the Overton Window on many of the issues that were considered taboo at that time. Though mostly the roots of the movement lie with young people from colleges that were considered liberal bastions, it soon enveloped the country in so many ways and the old guard met these culture waves with widespread opprobrium, and they came to hate not just the movement, but the people who were associated with it. Their message of peace and anti-war and equal rights for all sounded as anti-patriotic to the establishment.

When I watched the movie, the first thing that came to my mind is “Dissent is the highest form of patriotism”, the quote is often attributed to Jefferson but people say it came into use in the 60s, nevertheless, I firmly believe in a democracy, speaking against the injustices even if it’s against the government, is the right of every citizen. Can a cultural movement change politics or we need to create a political revolution first that wins elections that help us change some of the countries policies? This is a tough question to answer, but if you look at what happened with the 60s counterculture movements, they were all cultural movements with a strong political message, but mostly were painted by others as petulance, ungratefulness and unruly. But we can’t deny the free speech movement that flourished among the protesters, student unions, and conscientious objectors that paved the way for real change in this country. The contempt for the generation of free love and hippie culture whose message of peace was a bitter pill to swallow for the last vestiges of the “greatest generation” (They particularly hated the long hair worn by many of the counter culturists :)) If anyone has seen the movie Easy Rider that captured the iconic confrontation of the hippies by the farmer in the final scene would know what I am talking about. Although the individual movements took their own lifeforms and flourished or floundered on their own terms, most of the 60s generation were not looked upon kindly by the media or public and their free love, drugs and unruly culture of new ideas were too threatening and their political ideology was lost in the haze of all the marijuana.

If we see the war movies that were shot during the 60s and 70s like ‘Apocalypse Now’ and ‘The Deer Hunter’ or even ‘Full Metal Jacket’, they were not only anti-war but scathing commentary on the effects that war has on soldiers and countries we wage the war in. I personally lay the entire blame for the Vietnam disaster at the feet of the Dulles brothers and their foreign policy apparatus but that’s another conversation altogether. The fervent opposition to the draft and the Vietnam war not only killed millions of Vietnamese but ravaged generations of soldiers with PTSD and other ailments. Every anti-war protest almost always ended with police brutality and the country was just tired. Since then, the army realized it had an image problem, and if you see the newer films that depict war, the army cleverly worked with Hollywood to provide them “access” and “support” to inject subtle lies and propaganda in films. Once the Army changed their tactics, it became a certitude that if there’s a new film about war, it can only be made under the auspices of the US Army. Just look at acclaimed films like ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ (where torture is used to extract information about Osama Bin Laden, whereas in real life, the information was obtained via good old espionage) or films like ‘The Hurt Locker’, ‘American Sniper’ where not even minutes are spent on actual people who are getting killed but focuses the narrative on struggles and travails of the invading army. I do love these films, but the messaging does criminal disservice to people of Iraq, Afghanistan and other countries.

Going back to the film, the film deals with the protests at the 1968 democratic national convention chosen by the leaders of the anti-war movement as a bulwark against the tyranny of Chicago police and the establishment. The protests needless to say turned pernicious to the protesters when many were injured and/or arrested. Federal charges that were brought against 7 people who the newly minted Attorney General John Mitchell picked to make an example out of. John Mitchell thinks that his predecessor didn’t resign his post immediately after election and that he thinks is an insult to his “benediction” as Nixon’s Attorney General. He orders the justice department to manufacture conspiracy charges out of whole cloth to make it a federal case and picks most prominent leaders of the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam (“the Mobe”) including Tom Hayden, David Dellinger, Rennie Davis, Tom Hayden, Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin and the chairman of the Black Panther party Bobby Seale. Bobby Seale made the number of defendants 8 but since his lawyer couldn’t attend the trial due to a surgery, the judge wouldn’t postpone trial so Bobby Seale was made to sit through most of the trial without representation, until his case was declared a mistrial leaving the original 7. The judge’s behavior in treating Bobby Seale brooks no doubt in our mind where his sympathies lie. The courtroom drama starts almost immediately where the events leading up to it are told in flashbacks and some flash forwards, and during flashbacks Sorkin cleverly juxtaposes the testimony of witnesses (mostly undercover police officers) with real footage shot in 1968 with recreated footage side by side. This perfectly captures what really happened and how it’s being painted without anyone having to explain to us what is true and what is not. On top of the serious federal charges the defendants are facing, the hostile judge considers any wayward comment or a mere utterance by anyone as pugnacious and holds them in contempt and by the end of the trial, everyone including the defense lawyers are left with a myriad of contempt of court charges.

Written and directed by Aaron Sorkin, the film is packed with a powerhouse of talent including Eddie Redmayne, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Frank Langella, Sasha Baron Cohen (who plays Abbie Hoffman with élan) and others. All of them wear sardonic expressions in the trial deliberately to mock the entire proceedings because as they proclaim “We’re Not Going To Jail Because Of What We Did. We’re Going To Jail Because Of Who we are”. Dialogue is always the best part of any Sorkin movie, and the guy sure makes mere words sexy :) As with any Sorkin’s writing, this movie is packed with intelligent, poignant dialogues that are not shotgunned willy-nilly but aimed like a sniper’s bullets. When we see the antics of the FBI with their illegal wiretaps, surveillance (after all, this was the era of Hoover’s COINTELPRO) and other shenanigans and judge’s tantrums, and most importantly police abuse, brutality and the midnight raid and killing of Fred Hampton (a black panther activist) during the trial, all that runs through our mind is “nothing changed in 50 years”. In a chilling moment in the film, when Tom Hayden and his lawyer deliver the news to Bobby Seale in prison of Hampton’s death, Seale looks straight at his co-defendant Hayen and asks “Your life, it’s a fuck-you to your father, right? And you can see how that’s different from a rope on a tree?”. The film is eminently quotable and I am sure we will see so many memes from the movie in coming years. Though the film paints a bleak picture, we can be rest assured that the system eventually has worked for the 8 who were put on trial at least in the federal appeals court. In the final scene of the movie, Hayden uses the closing statement time to read the names of the 4,500 fallen soldiers (from the start of the trial) over the judge’s objections and protestations prompting everyone in the courtroom to stand up and pay their respects. It was a moving scene but in my mind I am thinking, “who’s reading the names of all the Vietnamese people who were slain?”.

I don’t want to spoil the entire film for you although its recorded history, I urge you to watch this film if not for its relevance, for its drama, and the well-made quality.

With all that’s happening around the world, especially in America, we have to take a side, we have no choice. This is an election year and we need to choose the side of democracy, we need to vote. If we give into skepticism, skepticism about our democratic process, it can curdle into cynicism and become as corrosive as acid. As we see in the movie, the institutions sometimes fail, but institutions are made of people, and rules, rules that people created. As Abbie Hoffman quotes Lincoln in the films “This country, with its institutions, belongs to the people who inhabit it. Whenever they shall grow weary of the existing government, they can exercise their constitutional right of amending it, or their revolutionary right to dismember it or overthrow it.” When the prosecutor asks Abbie, “do you want to dismember and overthrow the government?” Abbie coolly answers him “We do it every 4 years in this country”. If things are not working, our rights are being trampled, we fight injustices not just with voting, but working through democracy, but making better laws that work for everyone, not just a select few. So, go vote, but remember, voting is only the beginning.

Written On Oct 28, 2020

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I love to build software and write.

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Bhaskar Gandavabi

Bhaskar Gandavabi

I love to build software and write.

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