Current Affairs - October 22, 2020

... Sorkin’s film does portray Hoffman positively, and Sacha Baron Cohen gives a strong performance. In fact, The Trial of the Chicago 7 presents Hoffman as charming, colorful, rebellious, and committed to using theatrics as a serious form of protest, a un-loving counterweight to fellow defendant Tom Hayden, who comes across as a humorless prig (though a somewhat unpleasant note at the end of the film mentions that Hayden went on to serve a number of terms in the California legislature while Hoffman ultimately “killed himself,” perhaps Sorkin’s way of suggesting that in the long run the ‘work within the system’ types will prevail). Sorkin’s Hoffman is not held up as a figure of ridicule, but rather as someone who has a different notion of how to help the antiwar movement.

Yet while The Trial of the Chicago 7 is sympathetic to Hoffman, it also softens him in a way that ultimately amounts to historical fabrication. In the climax of Sorkin’s film, Hoffman takes to the stand and defends the protesters actions by invoking Lincoln and Jesus, and gives a tribute to democracy that could have come from The West Wing. “I think our institutions of democracy are a wonderful thing that right now are populated by some terrible people,” he tells the court. In the film, Hoffman is a relatively benign spokesman for the basic right of dissent.

In reality, Hoffman’s testimony was far more radical. He even read out the Yippies’ list of demands, which included, among other things:

  • an immediate end to the war
  • “a restructuring of our foreign policy which totally eliminates aspects of military, economic and cultural imperialism
  • the withdrawal of all foreign based troops and the abolition of military draft”
  • “immediate freedom for Huey Newton of the Black Panthers and all other black people”
  • “the legalization of marijuana and all other psychedelic drugs;
  • the freeing of all prisoners currently imprisoned on narcotics charges,”
  • “the abolition of all laws related to crimes without victims,”
  • “the total disarmament of all the people beginning with the police,”
  • “the abolition of money, the abolition of pay housing, pay media, pay transportation, pay food, pay education. pay clothing, pay medical health, and pay toilets,”
  • “a program of ecological development that would provide incentives for the decentralization of crowded cities and encourage rural living,”
  • “a program which provides not only free birth control information and devices, but also abortions when desired.”

Hoffman was a revolutionary, not just a critic of the war, and he said so plainly. But Sorkin cuts the bits of Hoffman’s speech that would endear him far less to a mainstream audience. For instance, Sorkin keeps the part of Hoffman’s sentencing statement in which he suggested Lincoln would have been arrested if he had done what the defendants did. He removes the parts where Hoffman offers the judge LSD, says riots are fun, calls George Washington a pothead, and says that Alexander Hamilton probably deserved to be shot. This stuff is, yes, clownish, but it was part of Hoffman’s effort to turn the whole proceeding into an absurdity.

Sorkin takes other creative liberties with history that end up distorting it. Sometimes these are arbitrary, small, and relatively harmless (defendant Lee Weiner was extremely hairy and hippie-ish but is presented in the film as clean-cut and nerdy). Bobby Seale, the Black Panther defendant who was infamously bound and gagged in the courtroom when he continuously spoke out about the violation of his right to counsel, actually managed to repeatedly wriggle out of the physical restraints the government put on him; the film portrays the government as effective in silencing him. Worse are things like portraying the prosecutor (an anti-communist ideologue in real life) as an agonized, conflicted idealist who sticks up for civil rights. Or showing Quaker pacifist Dave Dellinger punching a cop. Or treating the Panthers, armed revolutionaries, as peaceniks who preferred words to guns.

The film’s biggest problems come from the fact that Aaron Sorkin subscribes to an ideology I call Obamaism-Sorkinism (like Marxism-Leninism). The tenets of this ideology are that American institutions are fundamentally good, and that while we argue, ultimately our interests do not conflict, and nobody is evil or irredeemable. So of course the prosecutor is good. It could not be that Hoffman et al. want to destroy everything the prosecutor holds dear and create a society of sex, drugs, and rock & roll that would horrify him. ...

Read full review at Current Affairs