If I have one regret about this movie, it is that I didn’t wait five or 10 years to see it.
The subject matter has been on famed writer/director Aaron Sorkin’s mind for years. (I enjoyed his earlier projects, The West Wing television series and The Social Network movie years before I started a blog.)
My impression is that Sorkin chose to release this in the current year of “unrest” in American cities. The plot concerns a 52-year-old clash between Chicago cops and Vietnam protesters and the long, long federal trial in which the presumed protest leaders were prosecuted for inciting violence during the 1968 Democratic National Convention.
That 1968 violence was seen on television (lots of TV cameras happened to be in the city at the time, of course) and has been understood ever since as caused by heavy-handed policing ordered by then-mayor Richard Daley. This year, the protest violence seems more organized but almost certainly will not result in incitement charges.
The movie involves eight men’s trial in the courtroom of Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella at his best), who is angry, punitive and possibly demented. Seven of the men are represented by William Kunstler (Mark Rylance) who comes across as more gentle and humane than the real-life Kunstler, whose career was devoted to the defiant defense of underdogs, not all of them admirable, against the man.
The eighth defendant, Black Panther co-founder Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), is adamant that he did not participate in the protests and does not know the other defendants. His rage builds when the judge refuses to allow him to defend himself, or even to speak for himself, in court. An extreme overreaction by the judge, which did happen, causes Seale to be separated from the group prosecution.
And then there are seven.
Between courtroom scenes, we get to know the defendants: Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) and Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong) are irreverent/arrogant Yippies who push the judge’s limited tolerance even further. Rubin also teaches demonstrators how to make Molotov cocktails, perhaps in a reference to this year’s protests, or perhaps to suggest there is some mystery about whether the Chicago 7 really started the violence in Chicago’s Grant Park.
There are apparent inventions in the service of the plot. Did Richard Nixon’s new attorney general, John Mitchell, really order the post-inauguration prosecution of demonstrators in Chicago? Also, why the fictional enlistment of the previous president’s attorney general, Ramsey Clark (Michael Keaton) as a witness for the defense when such never happened? In addition, there is no mention of Lyndon Johnson, the previous president whom Clark served and who was so reviled for the escalation of the Vietnam War that he declined to run in 1968. (Imagine the Chicago unrest had Johnson been the nominee.) And, no, there was no noble reading of the names of military dead during the trial.
The trial ran from early April 1969 to late February 1970, but the film is shorter, thankfully. It has some points to make, but I’m not sure how relevant they are today.
Then and Now: Portland
I do not fault Aaron Sorkin for seizing the moment and releasing a film about an earlier period of American political rupture. He knows more than I ever will about the Vietnam protests and the subsequent Chicago trial.
But I was raised in Portland, Oregon. My high school is up the street from much of the protests that started after the ghastly George Floyd death and have continued ever since. After school in my senior year, I walked downtown to work at the city’s main public library, an experience I remember fondly but would not want a child of mine to have today.
I don’t understand why the local Resistance caused $1 million damage in downtown because its preferred candidate lost the 2016 election, or why threats of violence caused the city leaders to cancel a traditional Rose Festival parade in a far-off, lower-class (and increasingly displaced-minority) neighborhood because a Republican group planned to participate.
By July 9 this year, downtown “protests” had caused an estimated $9 million in private business losses. Those businesses now are mostly closed, but the fires, the police overtime, the healthcare costs for cops or photographers targeted with blinding lasers are not calculated. Or at least not reported.
Back when I lived in Portland, I never saw those noble protestors tutoring poor kids with me at the school not far from my house on Saturdays in the then-scary (now whiter and genetrified) neighborhood. I don’t think the black-hooded “BLM supporters” (haha) spend their mornings pressing doorbells to urge votes for Joe Biden.
My friends who are walkers during the daylight hours describe a one-mile street of now-closed and boarded-up businesses that may be closed permanently in the downtown hub of the city’s much-admired light rail system.
Protesters have torn down statues near and far, including one of an elk, a native animal — apparently, just because.
There seems to be a palpable protester interest in being oppressed by the local cops, who refuse to play along. Police restraint in the face of threats — name calling, projectile-tossing, commercial-grade firework explosions, fires set, threats to burn down houses with American flags on the porches — is admirable but also has caused a massive escalation in police retirements.
Fun as it is to spray ACAB (all cops are bastards) messages all over town, sometimes those officers are needed. Now, when arrests are made, the usual response by the district attorney’s office is to fail to press charges. (And I speak as one with personal, substantial complaints about the Portland constabulary.)
I could go on and on and on. But, for the forseeable future, how many entrepreneurs will set up businesses in now-affordable but empty downtown Portland? How many lawyers and accountants will relocate their offices to suburbs near their children’s schools?
How many travelers will want to stay at cool niche hotels when Antifa enforcers decide which cars may travel on downtown streets? Who will go downtown, even after the pandemic, for local theatrical or symphonic performances or to visit the very good local history museum with its demolished entry and now-toppled statues of the abominable Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln?
For his next project, Aaron Sorkin might want to apply his considerable talents to the current moment in a city like Portland.
Note:Here is the first of two 2015 stories wondering about the state of the state of Oregon. I may refer to others in future posts.