Late ’60’s Flashback — Chicago Conspiracy Trial

I got excited when I heard Netflix had produced an original movie, “The Trial of the Chicago 7.” Unlike most of my recent reading in history books of various sorts, this was a bit of history that resonated with me — because I remember it happening.

Not that I was old enough to be directly impacted. Yes, I was coming of age during the era of the Vietnam draft when the government inducted over 30,000 young men into involuntary military service each month, and, yes, that had already begun to have an enormous influence on me at age 13 as I watched the police riot against peace protestors on the street of Chicago that summer 52 years ago in 1968.

When the new Nixon administration brought conspiracy charges against a selected assortment of antiwar leaders, I was fully tuned in to their side of the argument: nothing less than disruption would stop the war and end the draft.

The trial itself was not easy to follow at the time. Back then, there were 3 national networks with 30-minute nightly news programs to cover all the news of the day. Even on eventful days in the trial, the maximum coverage would be about 2-3 minutes with courtroom sketches. Still, it sounded bizarre enough to intrigue me.

I became more familiar with the trial by reading “The Tales of Hoffman” (taken from excerpts of the trial transcripts) during my senior year in high school (71-72) . It engaged and enraged me, more fully showing the obvious bias from Judge Hoffman, the brutal treatment of Bobby Seale, and the antics of Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Ruin successfully mocking this farcical trial. I devoured that book hungrily, sharing stories with my like-minded friends at school.

So, I wondered what a flashback 50 years after the fact would feel like. I felt part anticipation and part trepidation about how Hollywood (in the form of Aaron Sorkin this time) would handle what I considered a key part of my politically formative years. The trailer looked promising.

But before I got a chance to “refresh” my memories with this new film, I started hearing friends praising it. Fair enough, I thought, and was about to settle in for a viewing when I saw that Rennie Davis, one of the original defendants, and posted some of his comments in response to the film on social media.

“I encourage all my FB friends to see the movie for its remarkable impact, but I can still wish the producers had realized the best movie possible could only be made by conveying the story just as it happened.”

He recounts how there were discussions during the actual trial about a movie, and Dustin Hoffman — who was to play Davis — attended every day of the hearings. I won’t go into spoilers here as to what Rennie says this movie got right or wrong. He spoke of it in this podcast, plus there are multiple reviews and commentaries already out there, detailing specifics that were changed. But that first quote summarizes his reaction nicely.

Me, I enjoyed the movie. The archival footage from the Chicago debacle brought back waves of familiar rage about the war, the draft, and how peace protestors were treated. Rennie is right that it remains a powerful and important story that still deserves to be retold, even if imperfectly.

Another good read about the actual events of the trial as opposed to this movie’s “events” from someone literally “in the room” comes from Nancy Kurshan, Jerry Rubin’s long-time lover — who was left out of Sorkin’s story. Calling the movie “entertaining, sometimes moving and often funny,” she goes on to provide additional details and corrections to this newest version of a part of her life.

Certainly, there have been other dramatized depictions of the riveting trial. Although that first attempt with Dustin Hoffman never materialized, the obvious drama beckoned Hollywood storytellers. This New York Times article about the new film looks to place it within the catalog of similar films, saying, “Aaron Sorkin is only the latest filmmaker to dramatize this prime example of political theater. Each version has a different understanding of the case and what it means.”

Probably the best known of these was the 1987 HBO version “Conspiracy: The Trial of the Chicago 8” (currently available on Amazon Prime, YouTube, Vimeo).

I still haven’t watched the HBO version but did enjoy a more recent docudrama (2007), “Chicago 10.” Based more directly on actual court transcripts that any fictionalized scripting, this version utilizes animation to depict courtroom scenes, blending those with archival footage from the riots to weave a more full tapestry.

In the end, I agree with Rennie Davis — this movie is important and a worthy story to tell despite its flaws. The peace movement of the late ’60’s and early ’70’s awakened the conscience of the country, forcing re-evaluation of our overseas war. Before it was all over, 18-year-olds had the right to vote, the draft had ended, and a few years later, the war itself came to an end.

Reviews of “The Trial of the Chicago 7”

Jacobin Magazine: “Historically literate leftists will, however, be rightly annoyed to see how Sorkin has to re-envision what happened in Chicago to reconcile his sympathetic depiction of the protestors with his centrist worldview.”

Slate: “The trial was real and so were the defendants, but Sorkin otherwise plays pretty freely with characters and events to ensure his clockwork screenplay hits exactly the right beats in exactly the right order.”

Berkeleyside: (Judy Gumbo, Yippie Girl, and second-row witness to the real trial)
“I think the people who are unhappy with it are uber-idealistic and who don’t get, as I, a Yippie, does, the effect I believe it will have on the majority of Americans who watch it.”

Smithsonian Magazine: “Fifty-two years later, the movie, like the trial itself, points to the power citizens can exert through protest in the face of authoritarian rule.”

About bullersbackporch

I am a native Austinite, a high-tech Luddite, lover of music, movies and stories and a born trainer-explainer.
This entry was posted in Movies, peace, War and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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