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The Chicago 7 trial on screen: an interpretation for each era

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Abbie Hoffman has described the Chicago 7 trial as a great spectacle, and for the past 50 years, filmmakers have accepted. Aaron Sorkins new Netflix production The Trial of Chicago 7 is the fourth filmed dramatization of the 1969 lawsuit of Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Tom Hayden, David Dellinger, Rennie Davis, Lee Weiner and John Froines, who faced federal charges of conspiracy and incitement to riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention.

It’s understandable that the events in this Chicago courtroom were such a catnip for playwrights, it was, in many ways, performative in nature, with heroes, villains, and court jesters in abundance. . At one point Judge Julius Hoffman asked Rubin, did you say you like being here? And the defendant replied, Its good theater, your honor.

In fact, Jeremy Kagans 1987 made the HBO movie Conspiracy: The Trial of the Chicago Eight (now streaming on Amazon) was adapted from a play, The Chicago Conspiracy Trial by Ron Sossi and Frank Condon. Among other differences, the different versions of films cannot even agree on their titles; Bobby Seale is often counted out, as he started the trial alongside the Chicago 7 but was fired halfway to stand trial separately, while the defendants themselves often included their two attorneys, making him the Chicago 10. .

In Conspiracy, the lawyers, the defendants, and the judge address the camera as if it were the jury; all dialogue is taken from the original transcripts, and aside from the superimposed flashes of stock footage and brief interview clips of the real participants, all of the action is confined to the courtroom.

While Conspiracy feels a bit stage-oriented (the battery of unconvincing wigs and beards doesn’t help), the instinct to dig into the unique setting is healthy, fighting for the grand tradition of courtroom drama. Theatrical: Inherit the Wind, The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial and Sorkins owns A Few Good Men. The best moments in the transcript feature the kind of dialogue most playwrights would die for, from the Marx Brothers act of Abbie Hoffman and Rubin arriving in court in fake judges’ robes to the righteous wrath of Bobby Seale, furiously demanding his constitutional rights during a meeting. which degenerates into its stranger than fiction bonds and gagging by the US Marshals.

Importantly, focusing on the courtroom allows Conspiracy to let this trial run as a miniature version of the riot itself featuring, as it did, hidden authority figures, young rioters. , demands for social justice and uncontrollable cops. Microcosms abound, in other words; in this trial, as in the riot that precipitated it, the participants staged the entire cultural conflict of the moment.

Conspiracy aims to be a late 1960s time capsule, but its style and method of filming (its shooting on vintage, ugly videotape) makes it a time capsule of its own late 1980s origin. , in a strange way, the creaking of the technique gives the impression that the Americans did not have time to participate in the trial. They had to be content with sketches of the courtroom as Abbie Hoffman explains.This trial was seen by millions of people as a one-minute cartoon every night, so it may be appropriate that the next film of the case, Brett Morgens Chicago 10, is part of the cartoon.

Its rotoscoping, to be precise, the animation technique that traces onto an existing film, popularized by Richard Linklaters Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly. Thus, Chicago 10 (available on Fandango now) is also a time capsule of his Released in 2008, a point underlined by the anachronistic soundtrack with Rage Against the Machine, Eminem and the Beastie Boys. As with Conspiracy, much attention is paid to the verisimilitude of the dialogue (both films open by noting that the dialogue comes from court transcripts). But Morgen approaches his film first as a documentary, using archival footage whenever possible, and only dramatizing when such material is not available; Morgen uses the trial as the setting for his films rather than the centerpiece.

It also takes the licensed license of a creative documentary maker, using heightened editing and dramatic music to reach the furious climax of the Chicago Police Department’s televised beating of protesters. Their brutality remains shocking if anything it got more powerful and Morgen wisely lets it play, without interruption or commentary, succinctly giving the full picture of what this trial was, as well as the injustice and absurdity. ultimate of these men being prosecuted for their actions that night.

Thanks to this surplus of historical context, Chicago 10 achieves the most ideal double feature film with the film Sorkins; to say the least would be the 2012 Pinchas Perrys drama The Chicago 8, a bizarre quirk that approaches this historic event with the tools and aesthetics of a low-budget direct-to-video erotic thriller. Perry, who wrote and directed, follows his predecessors in removing snatches of dialogue from court transcripts, but shows little understanding of rhetoric or events, and his slim 90-minute span is filled with inexplicable sidebars: sequestered jurors arguing over entertainment options, a tender scene between evil Judge Hoffman and his worried wife, and, God help us, an orgy scene from Abbie Hoffman.

Chicago Sorkins Trial 7 opens with the same Lyndon B. Johnson clip as Chicago 10, but it’s a pretty different beast, especially in the lack of record loyalty. Sorkin diverges markedly from the transcripts, and although traces of the text remain, he primarily rewrites events in (and out of) the courtroom with his distinctive, rapid, rat-tat-tat voice. (This is just 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 audiences he typically wooes, Sorkin writes with a greater eye on context. He contrasts the distinct factions of the Defendants’ counterculture all-star team with useful clarity: he doesn’t spend a small amount of screen time on the behind-the-scenes transactions that led to their. prosecution in the first place, and the role of new President Richard M. Nixon in relaunching an investigation that his predecessor had abandoned.

It’s all new and useful. The same goes for Fred Hampton, Chicago Chapter chief of the Black Panthers and what comes closest to an adviser that the unlawful Bobby Seale had during his time at the defense table. The choice to spotlight the Hamptons’ involvement, as well as his senseless death at the hands of the Chicago police during the trial, gives Seale clearer motivation for his actions and makes his treatment in the courtroom (where the Judge Hoffman orders the Marshals to take Seale to a room and treat him as he should be treated), all the more disturbing.

Sorkin doesn’t entirely dispense with the pitfalls of his predecessors, there are flashes of documentary footage, and some of the testimonies (notably Abbie Hoffmans) are closely reproduced. And for much of The Trial of the Chicago 7, that’s no problem. As The Social Network has proven, strict fidelity to the story isn’t exactly a defining proposition for Sorkin. But his instincts fail him when he comes to his ridiculously cheesy conclusion, in which the band’s condemnation statement is disrupted by booming music and Capra-esque theaters that are blatantly out of tune, which you simply can’t. do in a true story like this.

On the flip side, the real condemnation 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 disease in the next generation. This is the most sorkin-eseque dialogue in the transcript, and Sorkins’ decision to exclude it is downright baffling. The dramatic licensing is fine and fine, but if there’s one lesson to be learned here, it’s that sometimes you just can’t improve the story.

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