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Unmissable: Peter Hain reviews 'The Trial of the Chicago 7'

Unmissable: Peter Hain reviews 'The Trial of the Chicago 7'

Left to Right: Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as Bobby Seale, Ben Shenkman as Leonard Weinglass, Mark Rylance as William Kunstler, Eddie Redmayne as Tom Hayden, and Alex Sharp as Rennie Davis | Image: Nico Tavernise / Netflix © 2020

3 min read

An enthralling account of the notorious and politically motivated 1969 trial of American anti-Vietnam war protestors, this unmissable film is full of riveting insights and nuanced performances

Memories flooded back whilst watching this enthralling film about the notorious trial of seven defendants charged with conspiracy to besiege the August 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

Thousands had protested there against the Vietnam War, as I had done aged 18 in London, eerily boarded up as we marched from Victoria Embankment to the US Embassy in Mayfair.

Our chants resounded in the empty streets: “London, Paris and Berlin – we shall fight, we shall win!” And “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?” (LBJ, of course, being the US President Lyndon Baines Johnson, who refused to seek a second term, broken by the war.)

The year also saw the Paris uprising and student agitation throughout Europe against the Vietnam War and the Soviet invasion to crush Czechoslovakia’s democratic upsurge.

The film captures well the iconoclastic “new left” culture of that era: “Neither Washington nor Moscow,” our mantra.

Characters in the film like Tom Hayden – played brilliantly by Eddie Redmayne – Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin and Bobby Seale come to life as the prominent agitators I recall, their key group Students for a Democratic Society, and its New Left Manifesto, The Port Huron Statement, beautifully drafted by Hayden.

Judge Julius Hoffman is flawlessly portrayed in the film by Frank Langella

He emerges in the film – accurately I feel – as a “practical radical” rather than the theatrical impossibilists Hoffman and Rubin.

But The Trial of the Chicago 7 also gives a nuanced, sympathetic portrayal of each of these New Left figures.

The demonstration had occurred within a turbulent year that saw Martin Luther King gunned down by an assassin in Memphis, and Robert Kennedy killed in Los Angeles.

The blatantly political nature of the trial is well illustrated, revealing how the new Republican administration of President Richard Nixon reversed its predecessor’s decision not to prosecute and was instead determined to make an example of the ringleaders.

Hayden wrote about it in Trial, which I bought and read at the time, in which he wrote: "The Conspiracy Trial was both a nightmare and an awakening... It was Kafka's trial – six months of living in Judge Hoffman's neon oven… a trial of the entire protest generation of the 1960s."

Judge Julius Hoffman is flawlessly portrayed in the film by Frank Langella as autocratic, forgetful, semi-bumbling, and belligerently hostile to the seven defendants. His rulings were so dysfunctional that their sentences were quashed after a successful appeal.

Indeed, Hoffman had been most reluctantly forced to agree to the prosecution’s belated proposal to drop charges against the eighth defendant, Black Panther leader Bobby Seale, who shouldn’t even have been part of the same trial.

I identified closely with the Orwellian plight of all defendants because it mirrored my own 1972 Old Bailey conspiracy trial after a private prosecution (part-funded by the apartheid state) for disrupting all-white rugby and cricket tours.

This is a film not to be missed by my political generation – nor by others – for its riveting insights into the bitter cultural-political clashes of the late 1960s.

 

Lord Hain is a Labour peer and former anti-apartheid leader

 

Directed by: Aaron Sorkin

Broadcaster: Netflix

 

5 OSCAR NOMINATIONS: Including Supporting Actor, Sacha Baron Cohen

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