“Am I the only one that sees what’s going on out there?”
Aaron Sorkin‘s ultra topical, traditionally rapid-fire narrative response to the current Molotov cocktail moment in US politics (commissar Vyacheslav Mikhailovich gets special mention) seems rushed and too close to the heart of the filmmaker to be more grounded in living history than in personal sentiment, but it has Mark Rylance to hold that balance, as defense lawyer and civil rights activist William Kunstler, and the story’s saving grace. It also brings forth a worthy central premise – celebrating elements in US society in the Vietnam War era (i.e. ‘the radical left’) protesting America’s imperial policies, as well as its internal injustices, of which there were (and are) many. Justice, like revolution, cannot be compartmentalised.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 (2020), in line with the times, had a limited theatrical run, and premiered on Netflix a few days ago, depicting the aftermath of the bloody anti-war riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, clashes with the Chicago police and the National Guard, and the 1969 trial of the eight men accused of conspiracy and violence in the streets. Or, rather, the Chicago radical seven, plus Black Panthers’ Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), who was not connected to the riots, but came to Chicago to deliver a speech. He proceeds to deliver the film’s pivotal line, in prison, while the rest of the accused are out on bail, pointing out the stark difference between an anti-establishment ‘fuck you to your father’ and a ‘rope on a tree’. Fiery yet prudent civil rights activist and future congressman Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) concurs.
The other crucial clash of attitudes within the radical movement is the presently equally highly relevant false dichotomy of transforming societal mores vs. tackling societal injustices. Bemused flower-power Youth International Party co-founder Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) smirks at Hayden’s cleaning up his style for court, and political earnestness, while the other scoffs at what he views as infantile, ineffective counter-culture theatrics.
Political and judicial one-upmanship and personal grievances between the Democrat establishment and Nixon’s Republicans is positioned almost as a plot twist, mid-story, when it is uncovered that Ramsey Clark (Michael Keaton), the previous Attorney General, under Johnson administration, did not want to pursue indictments for the riots. Yet his successor did. Almost as personal jibe.
And then there is the question of Judge Hoffman (Frank Langella), conducting a de facto political trial, at one point ordering Bobby Seale, without a defense lawyer, and offering to speak for himself, to be tied and gagged in a US court of law. Even the prosecutor in the case, Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), depicted as covertly sympathetic to the core issues of the accused, requests a mistrial for Seale.
Parallels to the political moment we are living through, seem almost to be drawn directly. While what really constitutes ‘the radical left’ in US politics is perpetually up for debate, as what is labeled far left across the Atlantic, is only mildly off-centre in its European sister democracies, the glaring divide between the neoliberal and the progressive left in the US, and worldwide, has never been as evident as it is in 2020. With the rise of a new kind of ‘anti-corporate, anti-establishment’ fascism, now outsourced imperial wars, disguised as military interventions, ongoing since Vietnam, and the consequences of a pandemic on global health and economy, these are, in so many ways, the final days of a mortally wounded system of empire, bringing about political mutations of the Mad Max variety.
Lest we forget, the riots in Chicago in 1968 were inspired by an out-of-touch DNC, choosing a lukewarm, pro-war candidate against the backdrop of civil unrest, police brutality, assassinations of Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, and a raging neocolonial conflict in a foreign land. I’d like to think this to be Chicago 7’s subliminal progressive serving.
Or maybe I got it wrong.
Author: © Milana Vujkov