The Trial of the Chicago 7 and the American Film Institute 11

Armond White
·5 min read

Movie awards are the pretext, but race is the cudgel that media institutions use in the ongoing effort to “fundamentally transform” American culture (quoted phrase courtesy of Barack Obama and Bernie Sanders). The bureaucrats at the American Film Institute announced a list of the year’s best films that shows they no longer judge quality; instead, they misconstrue political posturing as artistic achievement.

The eleven films cited alphabetically by the AFI are standard-bearers; that the list concludes with the Netflix feature The Trial of the Chicago 7 conveniently suggests a 7/11 dice-toss. We can parallel AFI policy with those Sixties student activists who faced criminal court trial because the AFI’s sympathy is blatant and its tactics are suspect.

Since most cinephiles follow corporate journalism’s recent political activism, The Trial of the Chicago 7’s tribunal stands as a tongue-in-cheek metaphor for their groupthink. The AFI, nestled in Hollywood as a federally funded school for filmmakers, uses this annual list to set politicized standards for students, faculty, the film industry, and the gullible public.

The AFI entered the awards and lists game in 2014 as part of the Obama push to influence taste, keep up with political trends, and radicalize the culture. This is also the idea behind Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7, which is not so much a historical drama as it is a reverse right-side-of-history pretense. Sorkin presumes that the chaos fomented by the young radical Left at the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention was an exercise of liberty when it was, in fact, more violent than the recent events at the U.S. Capitol that the activist media, colluding with Democratic Party strategy, calls an “insurrection.” That allegation is implicit in the AFI’s endorsement of this inflated made-for-TV movie (an ideological sequel to Sorkin’s Nineties series The West Wing).

The trial is re-created (theatricalized) as another expression of Hollywood’s liberal-Democrat-socialist-anarchist bias. Sorkin’s view of Sixties upheaval starts with a bow to the media: CBS anchor Walter Cronkite declaring, “The Democratic convention is about to start in a police state. There doesn’t seem to be any other way to say it.” Today’s radicalized CBS hasn’t dared such an observation of Capitol Hill’s current resemblance to a militarized police-state, but its collusion with power is in perfect sync, and that’s the key to the historical fantasy of Sorkin and Netflix.

This romantic view of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) resembles the liberal media’s blinkered perspective of Black Lives Matter and Antifa. Sorkin writes and directs a comical, halcyon set-up — no depiction of actual rioting — and then juxtaposes a cynical view of D.C. wonks (Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Richard Schultz, selected by Nixon’s incoming attorney general John Mitchell to prosecute the rioters). Sorkin shows no imagination about the insider Deep State Peter Strzok types we now know. In a later plot twist that brings back former AG Ramsey Clark (Michael Keaton), Sorkin’s bias toward Beltway leftist “patriotism” and “courage” exposes the film’s dishonesty. Whether dealing with bureaucrats or student zealots, the film has a perspective on social turmoil that falls short of the insightful panorama in the French AIDS-activism epic B.P.M. Sorkin’s right-side-of-history saga is the bent history.

But The Trial of the Chicago 7 fits with other films on the AFI list by manipulating race consciousness. Black Panther Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), charged among other defendants with crossing state lines for the seditious purpose of causing a riot, provokes paranoia in the trial’s radical observers when Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella) has Seale bound and gagged (“You took that black guy and made him a sympathetic character,” sagely observes Mark Rylance as William Kunstler). Sorkin stages the incident, which eventually caused Seale’s case to be declared a mistrial, to evoke Abu Ghraib torture and more recent liberal outrage — although Woody Allen’s parody of it in the 1971 film Bananas was more accurate.

Through Sorkin’s sympathetic presentation, the Chicago 7 (Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, David Dellinger, Tom Hayden, Rennie Davis, John Froines, and Lee Weiner) come off as politically-inspired pop figures: Sacha Baron Cohen’s rabble-rouser Hoffman recalls Seinfeld’s Kramer doing stand-up. Eddie Redmayne’s Hayden resembles a mic-wielding rock star as he urges protesters to confront the police. Hindsight halos aside, it seems that they did do what they were accused of; Sorkin simply encourages us to idealize them. He looks back at their acquittal as a victory for civil liberties. This same glorified radicalism denies due process this millennium, giving way to liberals’ current purge mentality and twisted logic in demonizing civil unrest as anathema. Would Sorkin apply his biased jurisprudence to the recent impeachments? He avoids that consideration by using Hollywood’s ready rhetorical weapon: race-baiting.

In a key scene, Bernardine Dohrn (Alice Kremelberg), violent Weather Underground radical and wife of fellow Weather Underground dissident and Obama associate Bill Ayers, receives a threatening phone call at the Chicago 7 defense headquarters. She answers heroically, with a sarcastic defense of miscegenation: “It’s not so much that it’s bigger, it’s just better.” As always, racism is at the heart of liberal sanctimony and hypocrisy.

Such shamelessness confirms that there’s not one good — or popular — film on the AFI roll. Da 5 Bloods is scatterbrained and unpleasant. Judas and the Black Messiah: actually a 2021 systemic-racism-legend film that AFI couldn’t wait to promote. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom: misinformed and grim. Mank: cruel, fake, and shallow. Minari: sappy and banal. Nomadland: uninteresting social alienation. One Night in Miami: overly contrived fake history. Soul: child-numbing cultural indoctrination. Sound of Metal: dark yet sappy. Trial of the Chicago 7: anti-American nostalgia. Honorable mention: the forgettable Hamilton. The AFI list-makers may not be erudite, but they are truly woke.

More from National Review