NEW YORK — Nobody likes a hung jury. Either set the guy free or send him to the chair! But my reaction to Aaron Sorkin’s “The Trial of the Chicago 7” is big — the movie has occupied an enormous amount of real estate in my mind — and I still can’t really tell you if I adore it or despise it. I know that the fundamental job of a critic is to make either an up- or down-thumb gesture, but this one has me vexed. I call a mistrial!
“The Trial of the Chicago 7” is based on the conspiracy case in which the Nixon administration tried to “put the 1960s on trial.” As a film, it is a strong alignment of artist and repertoire.
Aaron Sorkin, whose career began as a playwright, is one of the few writers of dialogue working today with enough of an imprimatur to have a recognizable cadence. Perfected over seven seasons of “The West Wing,” then deployed in films like “The Social Network,” “Steve Jobs,” and “Molly’s Game,” Sorkin’s characters don’t really speak like human beings, but say the things we all wish we were clever enough to think of in the middle of a heated conversation. Moreover, he is an old school capital L liberal, and his ciphers are always eager to pontificate about the better angels of our nature.
A courtroom setting in which someone like Eddie Redmayne portrays youthful anti-war activist Tom Hayden and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II brims with righteous fury as Black Panther co-founder Bobby Seale, opposite a harrumphing conservative judge played by Frank Langella, is simply too perfect.
For Sorkin to soak himself in 50-year-old political specifics then draw a direct line to issues of “today” is pure catnip. He does so in ways that are clean, like a slick opening montage that introduces the many characters by having them finish each other’s sentences using the “Merry Christmas … and a Happy New Year” technique from “Citizen Kane.”
But he can also be clunky. All the music cues are anachronistic. Some of the terms weren’t used back then and are clearly meant to echo Donald Trump. And, importantly, the hokey group hug at the end (which I won’t spoil) isn’t just fake in tone, it is provably false in actions. Trial transcripts are easy to find online.
I happen to come to this film with a high degree of familiarity with the subject matter — the conspiracy trial that took place after the riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. No, the fact that my name is Hoffman does not mean I am a relative of Abbie Hoffman, leader of the Yippie movement, and one of the titular Chicago 7. (And here’s an added bonus: my mother’s maiden name is Rubin, same as Jerry Rubin, Hoffman’s co-defendant.) I’m also not related to Judge Julius Hoffman, who, as he himself points out to the jury, is not related to the longhair radical sitting in the dock. “Father, no!” Hoffman famously cried out for laughs when he made this distinction, one of the many disruptions during the trial that led to a slew of contempt charges (all of which were eventually overturned).
That moment of repartee is in Sorkin’s film, and volleyed marvelously between Sacha Baron Cohen and Frank Langella. Hearing that Abbie Hoffman, the ultimate tummler of counter-culture politics, would be played by Baron Cohen brought sky-high expectations for this movie. And he’s very good. (Okay, he didn’t quite nail the accent, but no human before or since ever quite spoke with Hoffman’s specific THC-enhanced Boston dialect.)
But throughout it all, Sorkin seems like he’s holding Baron Cohen back. And after watching the movie twice I realized what it is: this incredibly Jewish story has been significantly de-Judaized.
The Chicago trial was a manifestation of Nixon’s pledge to “restore law and order.” Ridiculous charges were fabricated about conspiring to cross state lines with intent to create a riot. The government initially accused eight men, including Bobby Seale, one of the founders of the Black Panthers; Dave Dellinger, an elder statesman conscientious objector; Rennie Davis and Tom Hayden, two leaders of the Students for a Democratic Society; two additional guys (one Jewish) who just kinda got caught up in the crossfire; and two very flamboyant Jews.
The loudmouths, the center of attention, the clowns of the court, and the ones the press stayed focused on were Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin. And they were proud to be boisterously Jewish.
Defending them (well, not defending Seale, which is a whole can of worms that ultimately led to Seale bound and gagged in the courtroom, then stripped away for his own trial) were two Jewish lawyers, William Moses Kunstler and Leonard Weinglass. The Judge, as mentioned, was Jewish. And one of the two prosecutors, Richard Schultz, was Jewish.
The high concentration of Jews in this story is something impossible to ignore, especially for 1969/70, yet Aaron Sorkin, who is Jewish, not only ignores it, he even obscures it.
In the real trial there was a lot of shouting back and forth between the defendants (and attorney Kunstler) and the Judge. They called him a fascist. They referred to his marshals as Gestapo. Rubin raised his arm in salute and shouted “Heil Hitler” and, in what perhaps may be the only time the phrase was used in Federal court, Hoffman called the Judge “a shonda fur die Goyim” (an embarrassment to the Jews). None of this is in the film.
Famously, Hoffman and Rubin, known to use costumes throughout their career as street theater activists/pests, came to the courtroom one day in black robes to match Judge Hoffman. This moment is in the movie, but what we don’t see is that in real life they had also affixed yellow Jewish stars. The point is that all the defendants were being tried because of the ideas they had and how they identified. The Yippies were (Groucho) Marxists.
The only thing explicitly Jewish in “The Trial of the Chicago 7” is when Abbie Hoffman takes the stand and gives his name, but adds his grandfather was originally called Shaboznikov. “He was a Russian Jew protesting anti-Semitism,” he tells Judge Hoffman, “so he was assigned a name that would sound like yours.”
There is a lot to unpack here. First of all, he never said it. It’s Sorkin’s artistic license to use this exchange to differentiate the earthy and righteous Abbie Hoffman from the cruel, sealed-off Julius Hoffman. Those of us who study this sort of thing might extrapolate that Sorkin is drawing a distinction between Russian Jews in mid-20th century America and the (usually) more wealthy German Jews. But I don’t really think so.
I’ve found, even living in New York City, that my more easygoing Gentile friends who harbor no animosity to Jews will regularly speak the phrase, “Oh, I didn’t know he was Jewish.” It doesn’t mean that they suddenly have a new slant or opinion on someone, it just means that they aren’t thinking about Jews in their midst and do not care. My point is that there will be people watching this movie without realizing that seven of the characters are Jews, up until the point Sacha Baron Cohen says this line.
Additionally, they might even think that Judge Hoffman, played by Frank Langella (not a Jew), is not supposed to be Jewish. “A name that would sound like yours,” as Baron Cohen says, may very well come off to someone not on the right wavelength as, “Oh, I guess Hoffman isn’t always a Jewish name!” (And as a Jewish Hoffman, I can assure you, that is true.)
For what it is worth, of the seven Jewish characters in this film, only Abbie Hoffman is played by someone who is “famously” Jewish. In addition to Langella’s Judge Hoffman, Jerry Rubin is played by Jeremy Strong (who, unless my research is incorrect, is not Jewish), and William Kunstler is played by British actor Mark Rylance (not Jewish). Jewish actors Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Noah Robbins, and Ben Shenkman play prosecutor Richard Schultz, defendant Lee Weiner, and attorney Leonard Weinglass.
Personally, this doesn’t bother me too much; I’m of the school that actors are playing pretend, which is why I’m buying a ticket for Gal Gadot’s “Cleopatra” even if movie theaters no longer exist when it is completed.
What I do find upsetting is how Sorkin has goofed on this opportunity to tell a story about our recent past that is so very important to our present moment, and tell it while showing how Jews were fighting for social justice front-and-center. I can’t know Sorkin’s decision to sand down the material so much, and I’m not suggesting there is any malicious intent, but it is, on a very fundamental level, extremely disappointing.
What’s more, from an entertainment perspective, he blew it. How much better would this movie be if Sacha Baron Cohen were yelling in Yiddish?! Not only that, he skipped the part where Jewish poet Allen Ginsberg took the witness stand and chanted “OMMMMMMM” until the judge ordered him to stop. That just would have been good comedy.
“The Trial of the Chicago 7” still has that speedy Sorkin patter that many of us crave, and might also rouse some sleepyheads into realizing that what’s happening in 2020 shares a lot in common with 1968. How the gavel will come down still remains to be seen.