This story contains spoilers for The Trial of the Chicago 7, available to stream on Netflix October 16.
Most of the action in The Trial of the Chicago 7 takes place inside a courtroom, so it makes sense that it’s also where Aaron Sorkin’s legal drama takes its final bow.
The movie centers around a group of activists famously indicted on charges of conspiracy and crossing state lines to incite a riot in the aftermath of violent protests at the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention. From March 20, 1969 to February 20, 1970, Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen), Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong), David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch), Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne), Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp), John Froines (Danny Flaherty), Lee Weiner (Noah Robbins), defended by their lawyer William Kunstler (Mark Rylance), faced off against prosecutor Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon Levitt) and Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella) in a landmark case for American civil liberties.
Still, despite the title, it’s important to remember that there were actually eight defendants. Chairman of the Black Panthers Bobby Seale (Emmy-winner Yahya Abdul Mateen II) was also indicted alongside the group, despite his claims that he had only been in the city for four hours to give a speech, and had never met these so-called co-conspirators before in his life. As we see in the movie, by the time the final verdict rolls around, Seale had already been excused and a mistrial declared, in part because of Judge Hoffman’s consistent racist and biased treatment of him. (Seale was however sentenced to four years for contempt of court, a decision later reversed on appeal.)
Sorkin’s best and worst tendencies — depending on how you feel about his work — are on display throughout the film, which is full of quippy one-liners, convoluted legalese boiled down and digested to its essentials, and solemn pauses to indicate the serious nature of the proceedings. (One thing this movie isn’t full of? Women. Another familiar Sorkin trait.) It’s a powerful story that the writer-director is uniquely qualified to tell, and one that echoes and sheds light on so many of today’s headlines. Despite the more than two hour run-time, I was hooked. That is, until the very end.
Throughout the trial, the stakes are incredibly high, with the defendants claiming that they were in Chicago to peacefully protest the mounting death toll of the war in Vietnam and were provoked by an out of control and vitriolic police force, while the prosecution argues that the events were the result of careful planning and malicious intent.
After months of twists and turns, things finally come to a close on day 151 of the trial. Lee Weiner and John Froines have already been acquitted by the jury, while Hoffman (no relation to the judge), Hayden, Rubin, Davis, and Dellinger have been found guilty of inciting to riot. (All seven were found not guilty of conspiracy.) Before sentencing, Judge Hoffman allows Hayden to make a statement on behalf of the group, instructing him to make it “brief and without any political content of any kind.” If he does so, the judge says, he might be more inclined to be lenient in his sentence decision.
For Hayden, the one member of the group who has shown a willingness to work within the system thus far (Hoffman and Rubin, for example, are far more radical in their attempts to upset the political status quo), this is the final straw.
“Your honor, since this trial began, 4,752 US troops have been killed in Vietnam,” he says. “And the following, are there names.”
For the next several minutes, we hear Hayden reading off the names of all the men who lost their lives fighting what he believes to be unjust war for the official record. It should be a solemn and grave moment. It isn’t.
In those last minutes, the relative restraint Sorkin has shown is replaced with melodrama, which robs the audience of this final time to reflect on what we’ve just witnessed. The violin score soars as Hayden reads out the names, and each defendant stands in solidarity, as does the prosecutor. (“Respect for the fallen,” he grumbles in explanation to his incredulous colleague.). The camera pans onto an outraged judge, who yells and bangs his gavel in a caricature of a man who knows he’s been beaten at his own game. There is a literal slow clap from trial attendees. All in all, it feels like a classic triumph of good over evil.
But here’s the thing. No one in that room knew that the guilty verdict would eventually be reversed on appeal. On that same day, all five defendants were sentenced to five years in prison, and fined $5,000 each. Kunstler, meanwhile, was charged with 24 counts of contempt of court. It wasn’t until November 21, 1970 — eight months later — that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit reversed Judge Hoffman’s decision. A new trial was ordered, but the Justice Department eventually refused to retry the case, and Hoffman, Hayden, Davis Dellinger, and Rubin went free.
Even if the movie’s ending wasn’t cheesy, there’s another reason it doesn’t quite work for this story. Hayden didn’t actually read out nearly 5,000 names during his sentencing hearing. And while Sorkin is entirely entitled to creative license, it’s strange that he would choose not to show what really did happen that day: The white defendants using their respective statements to call out the racism embedded within the U.S. criminal justice system.
"I am glad we exposed the court system because in millions of courthouses across this country Blacks are being shuttled from the streets to the jails and nobody knows about it,” Rubin said in his statement at the time. “They are forgotten men. There ain't a whole corps of press people sitting and watching. They don't care. You see what we have done is, we have exposed that. Maybe now people will be interested in what happens in the courthouse down the street because of what happened here. Maybe now people will be interested."
"Whatever happens to us, however unjustified, will be slight compared to what has happened already to the Vietnamese people, to the Black people in this country, to the criminals with whom we are now spending our days in the Cook County jail,” Dellinger added.
“I have sat there in the Cook County Jail with people who can't make bond, with people who have bum raps, with people who are nowhere, people who are the nothings of society, people who say to me, ‘You guys burned your draft cards. I would like to burn my birth certificate so they can never find me again,’” Hayden said in his address to the court.
The omission is even more confusing when you consider the movie’s most shocking moment: The disturbing sight of Seale, the only Black defendant, shackled and gagged in the courtroom on Judge Hoffman’s orders after he tried to come to his own defense.
In light of the ongoing fight for civil rights, and the unrest sweeping the country in protest of systemic racism and police brutality, an ending emphasizing the ongoing nature of that struggle would have hit a lot closer to home. Sometimes, life does art one better.