Abbie Hoffman described the trial of the Chicago 7 as “a great show,” and for the previous 50 years, moviemakers have agreed. Aaron Sorkin’s new Netflix manufacturing “The Trial of the Chicago 7” is the fourth filmed dramatization of the 1969 prosecution of Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Tom Hayden, David Dellinger, Rennie Davis, Lee Weiner and John Froines, who confronted federal prices of conspiracy and incitement of the riots on the 1968 Democratic National Convention.
That the occasions in that Chicago courtroom are such catnip to dramatists is comprehensible — it was, in some ways, performative in nature, with heroes and villains and courtroom jesters aplenty. At one level, Judge Julius Hoffman demanded of Rubin, “You said you enjoyed being here?” And the defendant responded, “It’s good theater, your honor.”
In reality, Jeremy Kagan’s 1987 made-for-HBO film “Conspiracy: The Trial of the Chicago Eight” (now streaming on Amazon) was tailored from a bit of theater, the play “The Chicago Conspiracy Trial” by Ron Sossi and Frank Condon. Among different variations, the assorted movie variations can’t even agree on their titles; Bobby Seale is commonly counted, as he started the trial alongside the Chicago 7 however was dismissed halfway by way of to be tried individually, whereas the defendants themselves typically included their two attorneys, making it the “Chicago 10.”
In “Conspiracy,” the attorneys, defendants and decide deal with the digital camera as if it have been the jury; the entire dialogue is drawn from the unique transcripts and, except for superimposed flashes of archival footage and transient interview snippets from the actual individuals, the entire motion is confined to the courtroom.
If “Conspiracy” feels a contact stagebound (the battery of unconvincing wigs and beards doesn’t assist), the intuition to dig into the one setting is sound, striving for the grand custom of theatrical courtroom dramas: “Inherit the Wind,” “The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial” and Sorkin’s personal “A Few Good Men.” The transcript’s greatest moments function the sort of dialogue most dramatists would die for, from the Marx Brothers-esque act of Abbie Hoffman and Rubin arriving in courtroom in faux decide’s robes to the righteous anger of Bobby Seale, furiously demanding his constitutional rights in an encounter that escalates to his stranger-than-fiction binding and gagging by U.S. marshals.
Most of all, specializing in the courtroom permits “Conspiracy” to let this trial operate as a miniature model of the riot itself — that includes, because it did, hidebound authority figures, youthful rabble-rousers, calls for for social justice and out-of-control cops. Microcosms abound, in different phrases; in that trial, simply as within the riot that precipitated it, the individuals have been appearing out the complete cultural battle of the second.
“Conspiracy” goals to be a time capsule of the late 1960s, however its type and methodology of filming (it’s shot on classic, ugly videotape) render it a time capsule of its personal late-’80s origin. Yet in a wierd method, the creakiness of the method makes it really feel extra just like the trial simulcast Americans didn’t get. They needed to make do with courtroom sketches — as Abbie Hoffman explains, “This trial was being seen by millions of people as a one-minute cartoon each night,” so it’s maybe applicable that the following movie of the case, Brett Morgen’s “Chicago 10,” is part cartoon.
It’s rotoscoped, to be precise, the animation technique that traces over existing film, popularized by Richard Linklater’s “Waking Life” and “A Scanner Darkly.” Thus, “Chicago 10” (available on Fandango Now) is also a time capsule of its 2008 release, a point underscored by the anachronistic soundtrack featuring Rage Against the Machine, Eminem and the Beastie Boys. As with “Conspiracy,” much is made of the verisimilitude of the dialogue (both films open by noting the dialogue is sourced from the court transcripts). But Morgen approaches his film as a documentarian first, using archival footage whenever possible, and only dramatizing when those materials are not available; Morgen uses the trial as his film’s framework rather than its centerpiece.
He also takes the license allowed of a creative documentarian, using heightened editing and dramatic music to build to the furious climax of the Chicago Police Department’s televised beating of protesters. Their brutality remains shocking — if anything, it’s grown more potent — and Morgen wisely lets it play, without interruption or commentary, succinctly conveying the full picture of what this trial was about, as well as the ultimate injustice and absurdity of these men being prosecuted for their actions that night.
Thanks to that surplus of historical context, “Chicago 10” makes the most ideal double feature with Sorkin’s film; the least would be Pinchas Perry’s 2012 drama “The Chicago 8,” a bizarre oddity that tackles this historical event with the tools and aesthetics of a low-budget direct-to-video erotic thriller. Perry, who wrote and directed, follows his predecessors by lifting snatches of dialogue from the court transcripts, but shows little understanding of the rhetoric or events, and its slender 90-minute running time is padded with inexplicable sidebars: sequestered jurors arguing over entertainment options, a tender scene between villainous Judge Hoffman and his concerned wife, and, God help us, an Abbie Hoffman orgy scene.
Sorkin’s “Trial of the Chicago 7” opens with the same Lyndon B. Johnson clip as “Chicago 10,” but this is quite a different beast, most noticeably in the lack of fealty to the record. Sorkin diverges markedly from the transcripts, and though trace elements of the text remain, he mostly rewrites the events in (and out of) the courtroom with his distinctive, fast-paced, rat-tat-tat voice. (This is merely an observation, not a complaint; he’s a better writer than most people are speakers.)
Perhaps due to the extended passage of time, or the mass audience he typically courts, Sorkin writes with a greater eye toward context. He contrasts the separate factions of the counterculture all-star team of defendants with helpful clarity: he spends no small amount of screen time on the back-room dealings that led to their prosecution in the first place, and the role of incoming President Richard M. Nixon in reanimating an investigation his predecessor had abandoned.
That’s all new, and helpful. So is the increased prominence given to Fred Hampton, head of the Chicago chapter of the Black Panthers and the closest thing to an adviser the lawyer-less Bobby Seale had during his time at the defense table. The choice to spotlight Hampton’s participation, as well as his senseless death at the hands of Chicago police during the trial, gives Seale a clearer motivation for his actions, and renders his treatment in the courtroom (where Judge Hoffman directs marshals to take Seale “into a room and deal with him as he should be dealt with”), all the more disturbing.
Sorkin doesn’t dispense entirely with the trappings of his predecessors — there are flashes of documentary footage, and some of the testimony (most notably Abbie Hoffman’s) is closely replicated. And for much of “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” this isn’t a problem. As proven by “The Social Network,” strict fidelity to history is not exactly a make-or-break proposition for Sorkin. But his instincts fail him when he arrives at his cringingly corny conclusion, in which the group’s “sentencing statement” is disrupted by soaring music and Capra-esque theatrics that are patently phony — something you simply cannot do in a true story like this.
On the other hand, the real sentencing statements, dramatized in previous films, included this shot from Rennie Davis to Judge Hoffman: “You represent all that is old, ugly, bigoted, and repressive in this country, and I will tell you that the spirit of this defense table will devour your sickness in the next generation.” It’s the most Sorkin-eseque dialogue in the transcript, and Sorkin’s decision to exclude it is downright baffling. Dramatic license is good and well, but if there’s a lesson to be learned here, it’s that sometimes you simply cannot improve upon history.