“The Trial of the Chicago 7,” written and directed by Aaron Sorkin. 140 minutes on Netflix
What makes this movie so relevant for today is the contrasting strategies portrayed. The movie makes the different ideologies clear. There were a lot of approaches to the Anti-War movement during the Vietnam invasion and not all of them are in this movie, but some critical ones were. With historical hindsight, we can evaluate them.
In 1969 leaders of the Black Panthers, Students for a Democratic Society, the newly formed Yippie Party, and one pacifist associated with the War Resisters League were put on trial for having crossed state lines in order to “incite a riot” at the Democratic Party National Convention. It was a political show trial staged by the Nixon Administration in hopes of dampening the anti-war fervor of the time.
We can dispense with Nixon’s nasty strategy easily: it failed. The anti-war movement did not diminish during or after the trial. What is much more interesting is the contrasting approaches of the defendants.
The strategy of the protagonist with the pacifist view was to appeal to people’s better nature and provide a good example of anti-war intelligence. He was the most reasonable of the bunch, or at least he seemed so until he slugged one of the bailiffs.
Bobby Seale of the Black Panthers was not involved in organizing the demonstrations. The Nixon “Justice” department apparently indicted him, as the script explains, just to scare the jurors. Seale doesn’t talk strategies with the other defendants, but his interactions with the judge showed his defiant attitude. During the trial, the Chicago Police murdered Fred Hampton, Chicago leader of the Panthers. The judge in the trial infamously had Bobby Seale bound and gagged in the courtroom.
The two “Yippies,” Abie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, steal the movie, as they did the publicity around the long trial, by joking and mocking the judicial system. Their goal, as gleefully explained in the movie, was to create a “cultural revolution.” Their antics were supposed to reveal the fundamental injustice of the war, the trial, and the entire American way of life. That would somehow lead to fundamental changes, but they were accused in the movie of being simple opportunists aggrandizing their own reputations and book sales.
Students for a Democratic Society was a mass movement. It didn’t last very long, but it had a tremendous impact on society and on the war in Vietnam while it lasted. Its main spokesperson in the movie was Tom Hayden who used his anti-war fame to gain a very successful career in California politics. Hayden explains that his movement’s goal was to win power through elections.
All of the defendants agreed on one thing: they wanted to end the war in Vietnam. In that regard, history explains to us that they were on the right track. The war in Vietnam is probably the only U.S. war whose extent was severely limited by popular dissent.
They also agreed that demonstrating at the Democratic Party Convention was a good tactic. The Democrats, after all, had started the war under the Kennedy Administration and carried it to fabulous extremes under Johnson. One could argue that the Chicago demonstrations helped defeat Hubert Humphrey and put Richard Nixon into the White House. Nixon then carried the war even further, but we have no historical way of evaluating what “Happy Warrior” Humphrey would have done.
The characters in the movie, especially Hayden and Hoffman, argue strategies. Viewers like you and I get to decide who was the most effective.
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You can learn all the technicalities of the movie with the Wikipedia article. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Trial_of_the_Chicago_7
For a rave review of the movie’s artistic aspects, see https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/the-trial-of-the-chicago-7-movie-review-2020