Today I’m going to be looking at the trial of the Chicago 7. I say looking at instead of reviewing. As i won’t be discussing the stylistic merits of the film such as cinematography, editing and sound design, as i usually do in my reviews. Instead i will be focusing on how well this film portrays the real events it is based on. It is getting a lot of awards buzz.
There are many moments where it skews the truth past what i would consider is allowable cinematic deviation. So hold your gabble and hear me out.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 Film Analysis And My Opinion
The trial of the Chicago 7 tells the story behind the protests that happened during the 1968 democratic national convention in Chicago. The consequent trial of eight later seven activists that were accused of having conspired together to incite the riots. This film’s name is very long so i will refer to it as Chicago 7.
In my top 10 films of 2020, i gave this film an honorable mention. I did not intend to do a full review because it was released in September. I usually try to focus my reviews on recent releases. However last week the golden globe nominations were announced. This film received five nominations. Coming in at second most nominated behind Mank. That is a film i will also be reviewing very soon.
In many ways this news was unsurprising. Considering this film portrays an important moment in American history and the golden globes are an American awards show. Realistically the biggest and most well-known awards shows are not the places to go to get a smorgasbord of worldwide cinematic representation. If we look at the entire best motion picture drama category in which Chicago 7 is nominated four of the five nominations are for films based in America.
My point is that this film is absolute awards show bait, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t deserve the recognition. I will get to some of the ways in which it is brilliant. It does take a lot of boxes especially in the current socio-political climate in America.
Many reviews have reflected on how this film highlights how history is repeating itself. In my honorable mention i said how Chicago 7 seeks to connect protesters past with protesters present.
Considering that Sorkin wrote the first draft of the screenplay in 2007. There were many opportunities for this film to be released and for it just to be another American history film. It really is the events of the last five years or so that help give this film relevance and impact in the current cinematic climate.
It achieves this by tweaking the real events to better serve the telling of a meaningful story. It does this in good ways and bad ways which i consider to be cleanly divided between the portrayals of the trial itself versus the events of the protests.
Let’s start with the good what Sorkin does expertly in his writing and directing is convey just how ridiculous the trial was. There is the antics of two of the defendants’ Abby Hoffman and Jerry Rubin. The heckling from the attending members of the public. The blatant unethical disregard for lawful prosecution from the judge. This culminated in the binding and gagging of bobby seals.
The original eighth defendant that had a mistrial declared after this horrific treatment. It’s a fascinating trial, an excellent choice for a piece of history to bring to the screen. During the scenes of the trial especially in the courtroom, the acting and writing truly shines.
The skewing of the truth is largely restricted to the reshuffling of events and picking and choosing of moments during these lengthy proceedings which would be the most emotionally gripping for the audience. However there is a real quote from one of the defendants Tom Hayden that Sorkin uses as the basis for an entirely fictional part of the plot. This brings me on to the bad ways in which Chicago 7 skews the truth.
The quote is if blood is going to flow let it flow all over the city which the prosecution uses as evidence that the group wanted to incite violence. The defence says that Hayden forgot to use the pronoun ours. This is all made up, yet it serves as the turning point for the film bringing the group together in a united front and pushing us to side with Hayden.
He in real life was apparently not as non-violent as the film would suggest. Honestly it was quite an underwhelming addition to the events however there are other deviations of the truth that i think do much more damage.
One of these is the taking of the hill where the statue of general john Logan is. In the film a swarm of police is depicted as having collected around the statue before the protesters charge at them. In truth it was the protesters who had collected around the statue and began climbing it. This led to the police taking action.
Furthermore there is a distinctly one-sided depiction of the violence that occurred when the police clashed with the protesters. Of course i am not denying that there was severe unjustified police brutality involved. That is one of the hot topics that makes Chicago 7 so moving to a contemporary audience. There was also a lot of injury done to the police as there were violent protesters throwing bricks, rocks, bottles and many other things.
What’s interesting is that according to history versus Hollywood, if you look at the last three decades of Chicago 7 documentaries they go from presenting a balanced view of the violence to almost not acknowledging that the police were injured at all.
This is a drama and not a documentary but something small would have sufficed, an indication that some of these police officers were scared. Some individuality rather than a blanket of anonymous malice. I haven’t even got to the fictional editions that bothered me the most. The women! In truth very few women were involved in the actual trial itself.
Apart from a few notable faces such as singer Judy Collins who was called to the stand. There were undercover agents who were sent to spy on the seven. The female agent portrayed by Caitlyn Fitzgerald in the film was fictional and Jerry Rubin falls in love with her.
Ruben also gets to interact with another female when he saves a young protester from being raped by a group of fraternity lads. I would have preferred no women to these women stereotypes to the nth degree. One is there to provide a goofy love story and the other one serves as a damsel in distress for a more important male character to act the hero and save it.
Very much feels like someone told Sorkin that a modern audience needs to see female faces and he simply took a couple characters from tvtropes.com and threw them in. They were simply not well developed enough to be meaningful.
According to an article from the Smithsonian institute Sorkin explained that he wanted this film to be a painting rather than a photograph of the real events. He says that before a film can be anything else relevant or persuasive or important, it has to be good. You will get the essence of these real life people and the kernel of who they are as human beings not the historical facts.
If the essence is all Sorkin wanted us to get then, i think he succeeded. Apart from Sasha Baron, Cohen’s Hoffman i really don’t feel like i get more than one facet of each character’s personality.
You may ask what about Dellinger one of the members of the seven who was most insistent on non-violence who is shown to punch someone and then regret it.
Well… the problem is that didn’t happen either. The real-life rainy davis has even expressed that the depiction of him in the film is as a complete nerd who is afraid of his own shadow. When he was a true hero bringing back many American prisoners of war from Vietnam.
Chicago 7 is a film about social inequality, political corruption, police brutality, the repercussions of war and the fight for justice. Researching this film has given me a wealth of knowledge about this group of amazing activists that each fought for change in their own way.
Truthfully i don’t think this film does them justice. I also think their story is a hefty undertaking for a two-hour film. I can’t think of many films that have this many protagonists and though Chicago 7 primarily focuses on two of the seven.
It still feels lost in trying to get everyone involved, not helped by the added fictional characters. If Sorkin had turned their story into say a 10 episode limited series, i think things would have been far different and likely far better. As it stands the trial of the Chicago 7 has many powerful moments worthy of recognition and merit.
The changes and additions to the truth only dampen the effect of the film and the story it is telling.