Aaron Sorkin loves himself some drama.
It can make for a gripping story even when he’s tackling a subject that isn’t based in fiction, as we saw in The Social Network. But that pursuit of dramatic tension can also lead to divergences away from what actually happened…as we also saw in The Social Network.
Sorkin’s latest, The Trial of the Chicago 7 on Netflix, is similarly rooted in real events. The court proceedings referenced in the title take us back to the dawn of the Richard Nixon administration and a politically motivated trial aimed at bringing down key figures in 1960s counterculture.
Just like The Social Network, Chicago 7 takes liberties with the source material. But before I get into unraveling the most noteworthy examples, let’s pause briefly for an overview of the trial and, more importantly, the events that led to it.
All the background you need to know
The Chicago 7 with their lawyers. From left, lawyer Leonard Weinglass, Rennie Davis, Abbie Hoffman, Lee Weiner, David Dellinger, John Froines, Jerry Rubin, Tom Hayden, and lawyer William Kunstler.
Image: David Fenton / Getty Images
The 1968 Democratic National Convention unfolded in the midst of a hell year that gives 2020 a run for its money. It was a time when the Vietnam War, more than a decade old at that point, saw some of its bloodiest days. It’s also when Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. were assassinated, with King’s death in particular prompting nationwide protests and civil unrest.
Against this backdrop, the Youth International Party (Yippies) and National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam (the Mobe) together planned large-scale protests in Chicago timed to coincide with the DNC, as the Democrats selected a candidate to face Nixon in the 1968 election. Over eight days, protesters clashed repeatedly with law enforcement in what was eventually deemed a police riot.
One year later, a Republican-led Justice Department hit seven of the two groups’ key figures with charges of conspiracy and inciting a riot, among others – the “Chicago Seven.” Black Panthers co-founder Bobby Seale was also charged (and came away with one of the longest prison stays) despite having had no role in the protest planning and only spending a short time in Chicago.
The superb Brett Morgen documentary Chicago 10, recently made available on Amazon Prime and iTunes, details all of this and it pairs great with The Trial of the Chicago 7.
“Take the hill!”
Protesters gather around the statue of General John Logan in Chicago’s Grant Park during the 1968 protests around the Democratic National Convention.
Image: Robert Abbott Sengstacke / Contributor via getty images
How the movie tells it: Roughly halfway through Chicago 7, a series of flashbacks recount a dramatic moment in which demonstrators skirmished with police in Chicago’s Grant Park. The trouble starts when a large group of marching demonstrators discovers helmeted officers arrayed in a defensive formation around a statue at the top of a hill.
After a brief standoff, an unnamed protester shouts “Take the hill!” and the crowd surges forward to meet the police head-on. In the midst of the chaos that follows, Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong), a Yippie and one of the defendants, is arrested after fighting off a group of counter-protesters who were attempting to rape one of the demonstrators.
What actually happened: A variation on Chicago 7‘s “Take the hill!” moment did happen in real life, but the movie flips the event and embellishes certain aspects of the showdown. Police weren’t on the scene in force when protesters arrived. In fact, members of the march swarmed to the top of the unprotected hill, with a number of them climbing up onto the statue of Civil War General John Logan that resides there.
It was only after protesters settled in that a large contingent of Chicago police showed up and moved to disband the crowd. There’s news footage of almost the entire incident. A young man’s leg was broken when police pulled him down from the statue.
Notably, both Chicago 7 and Chicago 10 offer a dramatic take on this encounter even though there’s not a single reference to the statue or the hill in the released transcript from the actual trial. But the footage speaks for itself.
Bobby Seale at the trial
A courtroom sketch of Bobby Seale during the trial.
Image: Chicago History Museum / Contributor via getty images
How the movie tells it: Black Panthers co-founder Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) was charged with the same offenses as the Yippie and Mobe figures at the center of the trial. The movie explicitly calls out Seale’s indictment as a racially motivated tactic in which a Black defendant was lumped in as a way to “scare” the jury.
Seale, who had spent only a short time in Chicago as a replacement speaker and wasn’t involved at all with the protest planning, opted to use his own lawyer instead of joining with the rest of the defense. But when that lawyer, Charles Garry, had to deal with a sudden medical issue, Seale decided to serve as his own defense at the trial.
Despite that being Seale’s right, as fellow Black Panthers co-founder Fred Hampton (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.) reminds him in a noteworthy courtroom moment, Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella) repeatedly denied or ignored his intent. Seale became more agitated with this fact as the trial went on, eventually prompting the judge to demand that he be restrained and gagged. Seale was eventually severed from the hearing in what was deemed a mistrial.
What actually happened: The basic pieces here are correct. Seale was wrongfully accused and lumped in alongside defendants with whom he’d had virtually no association. There were clear racial motivations in the move, with the Black Panthers being such a powerful presence in the late 1960s protest landscape.
Seale did attempt to represent himself after Garry’s health issues kept him from Chicago. Judge Hoffman ignored those pleas and did eventually have Seale bound and gagged in a cruel and shameful display. The Black Panther was eventually severed from the case completely. He faced a four-year prison term – one of the longest overall – as a result of contempt charges handed down by Hoffman, but only served a portion of that time. The contempt charges were eventually overturned due largely to Hoffman’s behavior and Seale was released in 1972.
The movie’s biggest divergence from reality in terms of Seale is the Black Panthers’ involvement in the trial. The fictionalized take suggests that Seale had support in the courtroom from members of the political organization, including Hampton himself. While it’s likely that some members of the Panthers were in attendance, there’s no record in the transcript of Hampton providing material support to Seale during the trial, which earned him an admonishment from Judge Hoffman in the movie.
Voir dire and David Dellinger’s sucker punch
Former U.S. attorney general Ramsey Clark (right) sits at the witness stand while Judge Julius Hoffman (left) presides.
Image: Chicago History Museum / Contributor via getty images
How the movie tells it: There’s a segment of the movie when Judge Hoffman allows the defense to call former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark (Michael Keaton) as a witness without the jury in the room, in a preliminary vetting process called voir dire. In the previous administration, Clark’s Justice Department had weighed charges against the Yippie and Mobe leaders before ultimately deciding there wasn’t a case to pursue.
We’re introduced to Clark as a bombshell witness. In a particularly tense moment, defense attorney William Kunstler (Mark Rylance) asks Clark to recount a call he’d had with then-President Lyndon B. Johnson, the details of which completely undermined the case being made by prosecutors Thomas Foran (J.C. MacKenzie) and Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt).
When Judge Hoffman ultimately sides with the prosecution and denies the defense their star witness, it prompts an angry outburst from Mobe leader David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch). As the tension between Dellinger and Hoffman reaches a breaking point, the defendant suddenly turns and sucker punches a courtroom officer who tries to make him sit back down.
What actually happened: Almost all of this is a fabrication. There was a voir dire proceeding in which the defense tried to introduce Clark as a witness. He was ultimately barred from participating by Judge Hoffman, but nowhere in that preliminary testimony is there discussion of a call with President Johnson.
In fact, the movie’s positioning of Clark as a witness who was willing and able to say, essentially, “there’s no case here” isn’t accurate. According to the court transcript, Clark fielded questions about federal planning and interactions with city leaders ahead of the convention. There’s also a brief discussion of a call the attorney general had with Foran about investigating a particular police action in the aftermath of the convention.
What’s more, that sucker punch never happened, during the voir dire exchange or at any other moment during the trial. Dellinger was actually a pacifist. Even at one particularly fraught moment during the real trial when Dellinger called out a marshal for hitting his 13-year-old daughter on the head to keep her quiet, he didn’t get violent.
(It’s also worth noting: The movie suggests Dellinger had a wife and one child, a son. In truth, he and his wife had five children – two daughters and three sons.)
Allen Ginsberg answers questions from the witness stand in a courtroom sketch.
Image: Mark McMahon / Contributor via Getty Images
How the movie tells it: There’s one sequence during the movie that shows us how undercover law enforcement officials infiltrated the ranks of the Chicago 7 in the midst of all the protest actions. We cut back and forth between the disguised cops introducing themselves in flashback and their uniformed selves appearing on the witness stand in court.
The group notably includes Daphne O’Connor (Caitlin FitzGerald), an FBI counterintelligence agent who flirted her way into a friendly, almost advisory, relationship with Rubin. He’s shown to be smitten with her, and more than willing to let her be a voice of reason in the midst of all the protest chaos. O’Connor, in turn, takes the stand for the government and offers a truthful account of what happened, whether or not it helps the federal case.
What actually happened: While undercover cops did ingratiate themselves into the ranks of the protesters, none of the individuals named in the movie are people who testified at the actual trial. There’s also no indication that Rubin was taken in by a flirtatious undercover officer. The closest parallel is Mary Ellen Dahl, a Chicago cop working undercover who testified that she overheard Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) plotting out a riot.
The movie’s approach to witness testimony in general is significantly pared down compared to the actual trial. It’s an understandable liberty taken in a movie that turns a months-long court proceeding into a two-hour drama, but it does present an incomplete picture of the case made by the defense.
Kunstler and fellow attorney Leonard Weinglass (Ben Shenkman) called a hefty lineup of celebrity witnesses to testify, including Allen Ginsberg, Norman Mailer, Arlo Guthrie, Timothy Leary, and Jesse Jackson. None of that is evident in the movie, though.
The bridge crossing and Abbie’s testimony
A scene from the police riot that erupted outside the Democratic National Convention on Oct. 28, 1968.
Image: Bettmann / Contributor via getty images
How the movie tells it: In a climactic one-two punch toward the end of the movie, we learn that defendant Thomas Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) may have inadvertently incited a riot when he misspoke during a public address at one of the 1968 rallies. In the scene that follows, Abbie Hoffman takes the stand and answers questions about that moment.
These two scenes together paint a picture, as the movie sees it, of how the violence around the convention reached its apex. It started with a police officer brutally clubbing defendant Rennie Davis, at which point Hayden took control of the mic and said: “If blood is gonna flow, let it flow all over the city.” What he meant to say was “If our blood is gonna flow, let it flow all over the city.”
This proclamation led to a scramble among the protesters to cross the bridges into downtown Chicago so they could bring their grievances to the doorsteps of the convention. Police had most of the bridges blocked, but a small group of protesters, including Abbie and Rubin, found one that was unprotected. But when they arrived at the convention, police cornered them outside a nearby hotel bar and met them with violence. There, they were all arrested.
What actually happened: The movie’s telling is admittedly a bit muddled on these points. It was actually a much larger group that crossed the bridge into Chicago on the evening of Oct. 28, 1968. As they reached the convention, police responded in force, setting off the convention’s infamous police riot.
Abbie’s testimony in the movie bears some surface resemblances to the testimony presented in the actual trial’s transcript. But the “If blood is gonna flow” quote that Gordon-Levitt’s Schultz referred to is never actually uttered during the trial as far as I can tell. I’m also not certain if the tape that gives Hayden up in the movie even exists; there’s no reference to it in the transcript either.
Thomas Hayden’s closing statement
The Chicago Eight, as the defendants were originally dubbed before Bobby Seale was severed from the case.
Image: New York Times Co. / Contributor via getty images
How the movie tells it: The Trial of the Chicago 7 caps off with sentencing and a closing statement from Hayden. He gets to speak for all the defendants because, in Judge Hoffman’s view, he was the most respectful member of the group inside the courtroom. In a drawn-out moment, Judge Hoffman asks, and Hayden agrees, that the statement be brief, respectful, and apolitical.
Hayden, who is shown throughout the movie as a straight-laced, by-the-book protester and ideological rival to Abbie Hoffman, decides to show his true self in those final moments. He uses his time to speak as an opportunity to protest the Vietnam War by citing the death statistics since the start of the trial and naming the war dead. Cue the music, cue the postscripts, cue the credits. Movie over.
What actually happened: There are two pieces here, so let’s start with Hayden himself. While the Yuppies and the Mobe had differing approaches to protest and public displays, there’s no indication that Hayden and Hoffman were specifically at odds. That may still be the case, but it’s not something that came up in any of the primary sources I looked through for research.
This is worth noting because it immediately undermines the movie’s framing of Hayden as the voice of doubt within the group, since his clashes with Hoffman are used to make the division clear. Without that tension between the two men, Hayden’s climactic statement loses much of its impact.
There was a moment during the real trial when the names of Vietnam’s war deaths were read off in the courtroom, but it wasn’t Hayden who did the reading. That distinction belongs to Dellinger.
A nationwide demonstration called the Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam, or Moratorium Day, happened on Oct. 15, 1969 in the midst of the trial. Before Judge Hoffman arrived and court proceedings officially kicked off for that day, Dellinger stood and started reading off the names of soldier’s killed in Vietnam. The judge shut it down when he arrived in an exchange that ultimately earned Dellinger a contempt charge.
Notable primary sources used in the research of this feature include the Chicago 10 documentary and the Simon & Schuster book release of the trial’s courtroom transcripts.
Aaron Sorkin loves himself some drama.