The Trial Of The Chicago 7 (2020): When Conservatism Destroys
52 years ago, thousands of activists marched to Chicago, where the Democratic Party Convention was taking place, for a peaceful act. However, on the first day of the demonstrations, police officers used unnecessary force to disperse the crowd in Lincoln Park, and their ferocity spread through the streets. The violent clash lasted for another four nights, resulting in hundreds of arrests, injuries, and wreckage all over the city. Besides that, new technologies made television coverage possible, so it also shook public opinion. Based on this factual background, The Trial of the Chicago 7 portrays the controversial court case of the leaders accused by the US government of inciting that riot. Written and directed by Aaron Sorkin, the feature addresses the role of the counterculture as opposed to conservatism in its multiple facets. Despite the dense political charge, the script is accessible and, along with a dynamic language, it establishes relationships with the current American struggles.
The murders of Martin Luther King and presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy in 1968 led the United States to the edge of a troubled time. In the same year, the Vietnam War broke the record of 16,899 Americans killed in combat, yet the number of soldiers sent to the frontline kept growing. The violence disguised as a civilizing mission was broadcast daily like soap opera episodes, but while the adults remained apathetic in face of what was happening, a restless youth took to the streets motivated by the desire to challenging moral standards and prevent society from succumbing to totalitarianism. The mobilization known as counterculture called for an end to conflicts, in addition to equal rights for women and blacks. Ahead of these groups were the seven protagonists on trial: Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, David Dellinger, Tom Hayden, Rennie Davis, John Froines, and Lee Weiner.
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Throughout the first act, the picture distinct character’s approaches, but reinforces their common ideal. While the Students for Democratic Society, led by Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) and Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp), seriously speak out their ideas to the public, the duo who led the Youth International Party, Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) and Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong) bet on popular humor to spread the message. Despite the contrasts, these groups were in Chicago with an anti-war bias to express their displeasure with the nomination of Hubert Humphrey by the Democratic party, since he didn’t represent real opposition to the Republicans. In Chicago 7, this convergence of goals is emphasized by the kind of editing that establishes the premise through fast cutting, and the script, which maintains coherence during the development in order to reinforce the allegations of violence were just an excuse to condemn, at once, the majority of American activism.
Sorkin’s direction legitimizes the protesters’ perspective and illustrates a trial filled with highs and lows. During the testimonies, some events are reconstructed through flashbacks and alternated with footage of the time to shine a light on police attacks. At other times, anti-war speeches are accompanied by a manipulative soundtrack that glorifies the nobility of the accused. Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella), on the other hand, represents conservatism, the main antagonist. He’s portrayed as someone who is ignorant and flawed since his conduct was disapproved even by the prosecutor. In the most shocking scene of the film, Bobby Seale, (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), watches the trial gagged and strapped to his chair as a punishment for contempt of authority. The leader of the Black Panthers was the eighth defendant, but he was removed from the case after months of censorship and racism inside a court, while outside, the American way of life was under threat.
“The whole world is watching” was the phrase chanted by protesters on the third day of the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Back then, images of the police firing teargas and beating demonstrators with nightsticks were broadcast on the news. An older generation reflected their dread by voting for Richard Nixon, a right-wing candidate aligned with law and order, sowing misrepresented ideas that perpetuate today. For this reason, nothing more coherent than a film about one of the most revolutionary periods of modernity to establish a link with the present and guide social issues into the public debate. If in the 1970s, American involvement in Vietnam lost meaning due to the reaction of young people to television coverage, in 2020 the internet became the main means of strengthening activism. In the middle of that year, the commotion over the murder of George Floyd, a black man, by a white policeman, resulted in numerous protests and political reforms in many cities.
At a key moment in the story, Tom Hayden discusses with Abbie Hoffman about the counterculture’s legacy. The movement is often associated with sexual freedom and the Woodstock Festival, but it’s not restricted to that. The events of Chicago paved the way for equality, even though reactionary politicians tried to undermine these achievements in the followed years. The scenario is similar today, but the world isn’t only watching, but also sharing everything pretty fast. The same motivations of that time assemble militancy on social media and the obstacles are still represented by an opposition that defends outdated institutions and values. It turns out what is traditional doesn’t adapt to any change, on the contrary, it reinforces a retrograde point of view in the face of prejudices that need to be deconstructed. Given this, it’s necessary to fight resistance like those seven defendants, because while it doesn’t kill, conservatism only destroys.