How the Ending of Netflix's 'The Trial of the Chicago 7' Rewrites History
Aaron Sorkin takes some liberties in his new courtroom drama to put a neater bow on the messy trial.
Aaron Sorkin's The Trial of the Chicago 7—widely praised by critics, including yours truly—arrives on Netflix today. It's an instant Oscar play, and a zippy, entertaining look at an all-too-relevant piece of American history when the United States government (unjustly) tried seven activists for conspiracy and inciting a riot during the clash between police and protestors at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, backdropped by the Vietnam War. But, like any film, The Trial of the Chicago 7 is not 100% historically accurate, and in fact some of the changes Sorkin decides are quite revealing, highlighting how the writer/director put his own stamp on the story, in some cases for worse. Let's break down three major alterations with special attention to that stirring ending which, in real life, was stirring in a much different way.
Daphne is a Sorkin invention
Undercover agents testified at the trial, and in one bit of the transcript, an agent by the name of Robert Pierson describes how he blended in with the protesters by letting his hair grow out, not shaving, and purchasing "the attire of a motorcycle gang member." The person who does not appear in the transcript is Daphne, played by Caitlin FitzGerald, of Masters of Sex and Succession fame. If you want to criticize Sorkin for some of his classic flaws, Daphne gives you plenty of reason to do so.
There are very few female characters in The Trial of the Chicago 7, which, frankly, makes sense. There weren't that many women involved in the real-life event, but perhaps in a nod to gender parity, Sorkin adds Daphne, a hottie FBI agent who poses as a radical, to flirt with Jeremy Strong's Jerry Rubin, and then betrays him. Sorkin's worst female characters are either nonsensically incompetent (Emily Mortimer on The Newsroom) or sexed-up deceivers (Hope Davis on The Newsroom), and Daphne falls into the latter category. It seems like she's in there for the (admittedly very funny) payoff of Rubin being genuinely in love with her and then heartbroken, but it still provokes a giant eye roll.
The mistreatment of Bobby Seale was even more horrifying
Sorkin greatly abridges the circumstances surrounding Black Panther Party Chairman Bobby Seale's (Yayha Abdul-Mateen II) abuse at the hands of Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella). On screen, a mistrial is declared the same day Hoffman orders marshals to "deal with [Seale] as he should be dealt with," resulting in Seale being bound and gagged upon his return to the courtroom. The whole situation is dealt with in about 10 minutes.
In reality, Seale's abuse went on for multiple days. On the third day, a lawyer for the defense Leonard Weinglass tells Hoffman that Seale is in "extreme discomfort. He has written me a note that the circulation of blood in his head is stopped by the pressure of the bandage on the top of the skull and would it be possible to have those bandages loosened? He is breathing very heavily." Sorkin indeed highlights the horrors of what happened to Seale, but the truth is even more terrible than depicted.
There was no grand final moment of unity
Sorkin's reworking of the last moments will inevitably the movie's most-debated change to the public record. At the sentencing in the film, Tom Hayden, played by Eddie Redmayne, uses his allotted time to speak to read off the names of the U.S. soldiers who had died in Vietnam since the trial began. As he reads, the music starts to swell and the defendants stand up in memory. They are soon joined by the rest of the courtroom, despite the protests of Hoffman. In a particularly saccharine touch, even the prosecution Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) stands. It's a cinematic finale that doesn't touch on the anger of the actual incident. According to the transcript of the trial—which is being republished in conjunction with the movie—this, perhaps obviously, never happened.
Each defendant, in his statement, was righteously furious. David Dellinger, played in the movie by John Caroll Lynch, said: "Tactics will change, people will err, people will die in the streets and die in prison, but I do not believe that this movement can be denied because, however falsely applied, the American ideal was from the beginning, when it excluded Black people and Indians and people without property, nonetheless there was a dream of justice and equality and freedom, and brotherhood, and I think that dream is much closer to fulfillment today than it has been at any time in the history of this country." Hayden argued that, "I have no doubt that if we had a jury of our peers, we would have walked out of this place, or we would have had an absolutely hung jury because younger people in the country today know what principles, and know what bullshit is, and know how to stand up and are not in the least afraid of expressing their convictions in the face of the state, in the face of the troops, in the face of police."
Sorkin reworks Hayden into the ideal Sorkin Hero, someone who is noble and ultimately goes to work within the system; he eventually becomes a California state senator. The strings that come in in the finale might as well be The West Wing theme song. Whereas so much of The Trial of the Chicago 7 is caustic and funny and messy, Sorkin swerves for the ending to hit on an emotional beat that is both moving and a little too tidy.
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