A radical left with out radicalism
Famous playwright and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin has always been great at explaining motivation. On his television series, The West Wing, President Josiah Bartlett and his staff believed that advancing the ball politically would mean a more just, economically healthier, and more tolerant society. The president, some speculated, was also driven to try to impress his father. The baseball players in Sorkin’s script for Moneyball wanted to win games. In The Social Network, Mark Zuckerberg became king of Facebook due to personal insecurity and a desire for social prestige.
The trial of Chicago 7, Sorkin’s preaching and ubiquitous new film (showing in certain cinemas and coming out on Netflix today), fails in large part because its characters’ motivations are not directly considered. Because doing so would mean exposing some very nasty truths about the American left, radicalism, and the 1960s – truths that Sorkin, who both wrote and directed the film, would rather not face. The most obvious thing is that many of the activists from this turbulent and overly exposed period were Marxists and radicals who wanted to destroy the United States. After all, these are people who bombed federal buildings and waved the flag of the communist Viet Cong against which the Americans fought at the time. David Horowitz’s great memoir Radical Son unveils the violent crime of the protest movement, particularly the Black Panthers.
Whether these radicals also conspired to riot is the subject of the trial of Chicago 7. In September 1969, seven people were accused by the state of conspiracy to instigate riots at the 1968 Democratic Assembly in Chicago. The accused: the hippies Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) and Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong), the student leader Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) and his friend Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp), the older and more moderate “peace activist” David Dellinger (John Carroll ) Lynch) and two other minor characters.
What dissolves in Chicago 7 is a love letter to the American left.
The government case is brought up by attorneys Thomas Foran and Richard Shultz (JC MacKenzie and Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who work at the urging of John Mitchell (John Doman), Richard Nixon’s newly appointed attorney general. Mitchell’s motivation is clear: He uses the conspiracy allegations as revenge on both the anti-war movement and what he felt was a personal insult to his predecessor Ramsey Clark (Michael Keaton). An eighth accused, Black Panther Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), is released after Judge Julias Hoffman (Frank Langella) declares his case a mistrial.
Of course, it’s not unexpected that what is breaking up in Chicago 7 is a love letter to the American left. The activists of the 1960s are all serious, personable people who just want peace, man. There is no mention of Mao, the Viet Cong, the victims of the Black Panthers, or the destruction caused by the Weather Underground and other left and anarchist groups. Sorkin’s Ramsey Clark is quietly pious without pointing out Clark’s embarrassing future radicalism, which Christopher Hitchens once best described: “By the bullying prosecutor [Clark] mutates into a vagabond and floating defender who offers himself to the Génocideurs of Rwanda and Slobodan Milosevic and uses up his free time in apologetics for North Korea. He acts as the front man for the Workers World Party, a particularly venomous small communist sect that emerged from defending the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956. “
Those who looked at Hoffman, Hayden et al. Resist are cartoons. Judge Julius Hoffman is a fat gargoyle, the Chicago cops are sadistic, unthinkable bulldogs, and Attorney General John Mitchell is a grunting, growling cartoon. Conservative students grin, aggressive grotesques. These liberal tropes, which are supposed to shock, have lost all ability to arouse interest at all.
In the past, Sorkin has proven himself capable of offering audiences intelligent and personable conservative characters. In A Few Good Men, arguably still his best scriptwriter, characters defend the honor of the U.S. military even when two Marines are on trial for murder. “You stand against a wall and say you won’t hurt anything tonight,” says one of her lawyers. “Not on my watch.” The west wing had the character of Ainsley Hayes, a keen Republican trial attorney who often got the best out of her Liberal counterparts. Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, Sorkin’s drama-comedy on late-night TV, featured a personable and attractive Christian character, Harriet Hayes. Perhaps most impressive was that an episode of The West Wing was based on Alger Hiss and concluded that Hiss was guilty and that those who defended him were a danger and a shame to the United States.
There is none of this in The Trial of the Chicago 7, although Sorkin has plenty of material to work with. In an informative article from 2008, Daniel J. Flynn shows that demonstrators gathered in Chicago in 1968 to cause violence. “Far from the political innocents turned into reality by sadistic cops,” notes Flynn, “the activists who dealt with cops were generally movement veterans who went to Chicago to seek a fight.” Flynn reports that New Left Notes’ Jeff Jones and Mike Spiegel wrote six months prior to the convention: “To imagine nonviolent demonstrations at the convention is indulging in pleasant fantasies” and that “by 1968 the movement moved from protest to protest was open confrontation. On the way to Chicago, Terry Robbins, who 18 months later would blow himself up while building a bomb for a soldiers dance, said to the comrades: Let’s kick our asses. “
Then there is Tom Hayden, the moral center of Sorkin’s film. Hayden would continue to serve in the California legislature, marry Jane Fonda, and pursue a career on the left, with a recent role as leader of the progressives for Obama. The students of a Democratic Society activist, Gerry Long, once reminded David Horowitz that Hayden was defending the Chicago police incendiary cruisers. “I heard Tom Hayden speak in cooler, unconcerned tones about street actions that could potentially kill people,” recalled Todd Gitlin in the book The Sixties. Flynn claims Mike Klonsky, SDS National Secretary during the Congressional Troubles, described Hayden planning to throw nails over a nearby highway. Bill Ayers, in his treatise Fugitive Days, writes two different faces on Hayden when addressing the public and the closed audience of radicals:
His voice took on a sharpness, somewhere between fanatical and dizzy, as he described bold plans and playful pranks. But you people – veterans of the movement and the streets – play a crucial role in that, he continued, the color of his face deepening and his eyes blazing again. He looked attentively from person to person. He was the same articulate and thoughtful speaker as before, but these were just words for a few. This demonstration has the potential, like nothing we have done before, to expose the enemy’s face, to strip them naked, to force them to reveal themselves as violent, brutal, totalitarian and evil. It will be difficult – and dangerous – to mock the monster and stab it in its most exposed and vulnerable places, but it has to be done. And he paused. And you are the one who does it.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 attempts to downplay Hayden’s call to action by performing a ridiculous exegesis on Hayden’s rhetorical style and how sometimes the right grammar and modifiers have been left out in the heat of political struggle to obscure what he really is meant. In reality, the trial resulted in five of the seven defendants being convicted of instigation. All were acquitted of the conspiracy. All received long sentences for contempt of court. In later trials, the judge’s charges of contempt were overturned and all convictions for inciting unrest were overturned.
It can be argued that the trial should never have happened – that, as the film claims, it paid off because John Mitchell didn’t like Ramsey Clark. But the claim that the accused are innocent jokes and peace-loving activists acting out of love for the country is neither worthy of Sorkin nor of your time.