Director: Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing, The Social Network)
Country: United States
Running Time: 130 mins
Genre: Historical Legal Drama
The Vietnam War was fought for 19 years between 1 November 1955 – 30 April 1974 and it exacted an enormous human cost. It is estimated that between one million and 3.8 million Vietnamese soldiers and civilians died in the conflict. Additionally some 300,000 Cambodians, 62,000 Laotians and 58,220 US service members were also killed, and a further 1,626 USA soldiers remained missing in action. No mention is made in official statistics of the number of Vietnamese, Cambodians and Laotians ‘missing’ although it is thought that about 300000 Vietnamese are still missing and unaccounted for. The war was principally between North and South Vietnam and was supported by their respective allies in what some refer to as a proxy war. The Soviet Union, China and other communist allies supported North Vietnam; the United States, South Korea, the Philippines, Australia, Thailand, and other anti-communist allies supported South Vietnam.
Tired of the futility and brutality of the war hundreds of Americans became conscientious objectors to the war and refused to serve in it. Americans protested on the streets of America. Muhammad Ali refused to be conscripted into the war and was jailed and stripped off his boxing titles for it. Moreover, like Ali said, ‘I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong; no Vietcong ever called me nigger.’ This more or less informed the feelings of the Vietnam objectors.
Based on true events, The Trial of Chicago 7 follows the trial of seven Americans prosecuted for taking part in a protest against the Vietnam War outside the American Democratic National Convention in August 1968. The seven were: Sacha Baron Cohen as Abbie Hoffman( founding member of the Youth International Party – YIPPIES): Eddie Redmayne as Tom Hayden (leader and one time President of the Students for a Democratic Society - SDS): Alex Sharp as Rennie Davis (national organizer of community organizing for the SDS): Jeremy Strong as Jerry Rubin (founding member of the YIPPIES): John Carroll Lynch as David Dellinger (leader of the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam - MOBE): Noah Robbins as Lee Weiner and Daniel Flaherty as John Froines. The eighth defendant was Bobby Seale (played by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) who was the National Chairman of the Black Panther Party.
The prosecution were represented by Tom Foran and Richard Schultz , and the defendants by William Kunstler and the brave Leonard Weinglass who throughout his life stridently stood by the underdog and is famously known for his defense of the ‘Cuban Five’ in his later years. Eddie Redmayne plays Tom Hayden, better known for his role as Stephen Hawking in the 2014 film ‘The Theory of Everything’.
The seven were victims of historical circumstance, and were prosecuted by the state towards the end of the liberal Johnson Presidency regime, just as Richard Nixon took over. The new Attorney General John N Mitchell appoints the openly biased Julius Hoffman (played by Frank Langella) as the Judge and bullies the reluctant young prosecutor Richard Shultz into heading the prosecution.
The trial exposes the underhand tactics of the state as they try in every way possible to implicate the ‘Chicago 7’ in taking part in a ‘riot’, but which really was a peaceful non-violent protest outside the Democratic National Convention. The security sent in uncover FBI and police officers to infiltrate the ranks of the protestors to instigate violence and report back to the Attorney General’s office as the state prepared to arrest the protestors.
Attempts are made by the Judge to bully and intimidate the predominantly white jury by using Bobby Seale and the Black Panther Party as fall guys who have really nothing do with the trial of the ‘Chicago 7’. Bobby Seale time and again tries to alert the Judge that he was not part of the so called riot and was in Chicago for a mere four hours on another assignment altogether. However, the determination of the US Government to harass and intimidate the Black Panther Party is well known and the injustices and violence inflicted on Bobby Seale at the trial are shocking. Bobby Seale is eventually released after his case was declared a ‘mistrial’. During the trial, we learn of the true-life brutal assassination by the state of Fred Hampton who was at the time Chairman of Illinois Chapter Black Panther Party and who for a short while supports Bobby Seale at the trial from the public gallery.
The antics of the openly biased and confused Judge Hoffman dominates the case as he bullies the jury, abuses and pores scorn on the defendants and intimidates the defense lawyers in an effort to convict the Chicago 7 at the behest of a corrupt and racist system. The Judge struggles with names, repeatedly getting Leonard Weinglass’ name wrong, calling him ‘Feinglass,’ ‘Weinruss,’ and ‘whatever your name is’. He issues a record 175 ‘Contempt’ charges against the defendants and the defense lawyers for almost any imaginable utterance!
As the trial concludes the Judge tries to bait Tom Hayden with a ‘lenient sentence’ if he presents a ‘reasonable’ defense of the conduct of the Chicago 7. In his response, Tom Hayden starts reading out the names of the 4500 American victims of the Vietnam War and pandemonium ensues in the courtroom. In the end, five of the seven accused were convicted for inciting riots. However, a different judge overturned all convictions partially based on Judge Hoffman’s biases, and the Justice Department decided not to retry the case.
When released in September 2020, the film was the second most digitally streamed film made by Netflix. John DeFore of The Hollywood Reporter wrote, ‘Sorkin has made a movie that's gripping, illuminating and trenchant, as erudite as his best work and always grounded first and foremost in story and character. It's as much about the constitutional American right to protest as it is about justice, which makes it incredibly relevant to where we are today.’