Stockholm Syndrome and The Trial of the Chicago 7

Stockholm syndrome is the term for desperate captives who, in extreme cases, begin to or really do identify with the culprits endangering them. Call it perversity squared but the syndrome is understandable in extended survival quests. One cannot imagine a better explanation as to why many movement veterans lavished grateful praise on the insidious Yuppified travesty that is Netflix’ Chicago 7 (started out as 8) Trial movie.

No doubt director/writer Aaron Sorkin’s vaunted liberal track record and his slick wordsmithing skills have a lot to do with it, inveigling unwary viewers with glib but reductive portraits of show trial defendants trapped inside that dark delirious circus.

Viewers may like to imagine Sorkin is on the side of the countercultural angels when he is only applying a cynical post-Reaganite chic vision to a motley band of rebels who disdained almost everything Sorkin stands for. Martin Luther King had some penetrating things to say about fair-weather liberals, but now exactly those folks get to be the ordained interpreters of what dissenters did at the tumultuous time, and why. Even some of the savviest audience members, starved for any scrap of a semblance to truth, may succumb because this “balanced” tale is the best we can expect of depictions of the Sixties from the corporate media apparatus. All is forgiven too because mass media writers obviously (?) must adhere to rigid rules of drama no matter how much distortion they entail.

If a scruffy defendant desired to convey the rambunctious moral essence of what transpired at the 1968 Chicago Democratic convention, and afterward during a five month carnivalesque rigged trial, he might not pick a fellow who was just a child during all the festivities to plead their case. Liberals, contrary to Sorkins’s film, and despite Ramsay Clark’s honorable exception, were not on the side of the Chicago 7 miscreants at the time any more so than were Nixon’s crew cut disciples. Hubert Humphrey’s response to convention protesters – but not the cops or Mayor Daley Sr. and his minions – was “fuck ’em, fuck ’em. fuck ’em.” Blame the protesters for Humphrey’s election loss later but what about Daley for denying park permits and thereby guaranteeing what the Walker Report called a police riot, or Lyndon Johnson for nixing the compromise Vietnam peace plan Humphrey hoped to bring to the convention, or Nixon for treasonously preventing a Vietnam peace deal before the election.

Here is where oodles of ‘talent’ does a clueless writer little good, just as a more talented reactionary in Republican ranks would not necessarily have been a better President than Trump.  Sorkin gets away with taking liberties with the record because he seems so well-meaning, but the film is ultimately centrist revenge on often envied folks who took risks by stepping outside the system. Like people who insist on blaming Nader (not Gore’s poor campaign) for Bush’s victory, or the Russians or the Green Party for Trump’s victory, what Tariq Ali nicely terms centrist extremists are incapable of detecting their own fingerprints on the blunt instruments they decry. Noam Chomsky also had rather relevant things to say about the role of  the liberal intelligentsia during the Vietnam war, as did David Halberstam in the The Best and the Brightest, and many others of whom the flick seems blithely unaware.

Creative license has a lot more than usual to answer for. An array of gratuitously misleading characterizations, the play-dough refashioning of key events, and the unsubtle promotion of centrist narratives suffuse this doubtless meticulously constructed script. What are the rules of mass media drama when applied to real events? Contrive internal tensions even where there were none, create character arcs from conflict to reconciliation even among characters who were mutually respectful allies all along, flush out, or failing that, concoct flaws for all the protagonists so as to ‘humanize” them, depict the foes as no worse really than the defendants, bring all motives down to the lowest possible level, pitch every action at a person-to-person level so that the systems they operate within (or resist) never come into question, and wrap it all up in a false unifying moment. It’s all in the service of attracting viewers.

Powerful and telling moments abound because chronicles can’t always be evaded, but these moments are strategically sacrificed and undercut by much of what follows. (Why omit or underplay that Bobby Seale at the trial had to be introduced to several of his alleged co-conspirators?) So we are treated to the supreme fictions of Dellinger slugging a bailiff, Jerry Rubin falling lovesick for a blonde undercover operative (whose manner and attire advertised ‘agent!’), Tom Hayden behaving like an uptight Eagle Scout with his beady eye on career prospects, Rennie Davis presented as a meek inexperienced wimp, Bill Kunstler acting initially like an irritable schoolmaster who had no clue about or affinity for who his clients are, and sidekick attorney Len Weinglass all but  vanishing while Fred Hampton appears where he never was. Kunstler, for example, bid adieu to the jury for its deliberations, saying:

I don’t want you to leave for your deliberations without knowing that agitator has an honest good connotation whether it be Jesus Leaving Nazareth, or Debs leaving Terra Haute, or Susan Anthony, or Dr. King, or George Washington or Mohandas Gandhi or Harriet Tubman – they all are outside agitators, all in the interest of social change.

Any resemblance to the Kunstler in the film is purely coincidental. We’re supposed to be shocked that Abbie Hoffman read the Port Huron Statement, or could read anything serious at all. On the other side of the aisle,  a fictitious chance meeting in a park enables Sorkin to depict co-prosecuting attorney Richard Schultz – where is the utterly vile Tom Foran in all this?  – as something other than the win-at-any cost apparatchik he really was. Would we really have been bored viewing the real people with their corroborated actions? Have a look at Jerome Kagan’s Conspiracy: The Trial of the Chicago 8 (1987) free on YouTube and, ahem, judge for yourselves.

The unwelcome question is, did one need to distort the record for entertainment value, and was anything gained thereby? Were the actual people, if faithfully portrayed as well as documents and memories allow, so dull, colorless, remote and alien as to need sprucing up?  Alien they certainly were to Sorkin, who can’t imagine why the defendants, their lawyers and supporters behaved so boldly and bravely except out of motives that makes a crude sense to very “straight” people who can’t comprehend anyone acting for other than self-interest, as a market economy demands. What is especially conscientious about the scripted account is that every outrageous act by the authorities must be paired with a dumb provocative move by protesters, even if they never occurred.

One revealing if throwaway remark in the courtroom occurs when, beholding a parade of undercover cops and informants, one defendant whispers to another that he wonders if all the people they led in August were government agents. David Farber found in his research that likely 1 person in 6 in the streets were employed by agencies ranging from the Chicago Police Red Squad to the FBI to military intelligence agencies –  not to mention rightwing paramilitary groups. There of course are plain idiots who attach themselves to any public gathering, but the people braying for mindless action and violence almost always turned out to be  provocateurs. The scene of the “We are Watching You” threat that several sympathetic jurors allegedly got via the mail was a particularly piquant instance since I and many associates at the time used to receive messages in our mailboxes emblazoned with exactly those words, plus a graphic of a skinny figure inside a bulls-eye – only it was signed by The Minutemen, an ultra-right cult with many law enforcement officials as ardent members.  The right loves to project their own tactics and feelings on others.

How did the trial come about? The 1968 Tet Offensive demolished giddy visions of victory generated by administration figures who blinded themselves to the realities of a needless expanding war they generated. The public began to turn, for many conflicting reasons, against it. A point that the right likes to trumpet  is that the “silent majority” public detested those long-haired protesters, seeing them as agents of chaos, just as  Nixon preached. True enough, but the public (and secretly even Mayor Daley) also detested the same war the protesters arrayed themselves against, with no better answers as to how to end it. In retrospect, it took every kind of action to wind it down.

The film’s upshot, though, is that the activists were basically fools who, failing to work through the system, set back the peace movement or at best made no difference. They also were driven less by ethics than by raging egos and untethered emotions, which is as much the liberals’ creed as it is the conservatives. What authorities glimpsed here was a merging of worrisome mass protest with what Lewis Lapham terms the “neurotic fear running around loose in the heads of the propertied classes” that everyone wanted to grab what they got, and so crackdowns on democratic expression had to come.

Who wanted the violence? Rubin is shown tutoring eager Yippie acolytes in the construction of Molotov cocktails simply because Yippies, as everyone knows, were the Special Forces of the antiwar movement. Is there any trace of proof for this scene anywhere? Then in the face of phalanxes of armed cops a hair trigger away from mowing down everyone, Rubin, who reminds one of Sean Penn moseying off the set of Fast Times at Ridgemont High, considers a frontal assault.  Ah, but cooler heads (excuse the expression) prevail, ah, but only momentarily. Some other righteous dude cries “Take the Hill!” and off the lemmings go cinematically in the same spirit as Fred Hampton later memorably said of the Weathermen, “Custeristic.” In reality, somebody did yell “Take the Hill” – when it was devoid of cops.  A planted female cop obligatorily would have urged rash action to justify maximum cop mayhem but she is instead represented as a source of wise adult counsel, because Sorkin sorely needs to portray some cops as reasonable figures. At least the cops in court perjuring themselves profusely were shown as they really were.

Still, amid a slew of jaw-dropping moments, Bobby Seale supposedly accuses Tom Hayden, a veteran of the civil rights movement, the Newark ERAP project and god knows how many encounters with authorities, of doing everything he did in order to say “fuck you to Dad”, which Hayden concedes is true. So Sorkin gratuitously invokes the old discrediting device that dissenters are just brats acting out oedipal anxieties. Rennie Davis to the end comes off like a hopeless hayseed who just strayed out of his tiny home town for the first time. Davis, unlike Hayden, fortunately lived long enough to scribble his critical impressions of the film.

Tom Hayden, so far as I could tell, never appears except in name and is replaced by Sorkin who ventriloquizes his own views through this convenient made-up figurine, not least in clashes between Hayden and Abbie Hoffman over electoral versus cultural change, as if these were divisible matters and any sentient being saw them as such at the time. Hayden’s/Sorkin’s message amounts to, Why can’t everyone go on being “Clean for Gene”? I mean, look how well that was working out.

Julius Hoffman remains a riot in himself, but get rid of him and you most likely get assigned a judge who is more adept but just as biased. The era is riddled with court cases in which the government tampered.  A fortunate few, like Daniel Ellsberg and Anthony Russo, were acquitted when high jinks came to light. The record is clear enough regarding the illicit gimmicks and deceits that the authorities readily resorted to, as they always do when they feel cornered, and often when not. So it is hardly a breakthrough to depict Daley, the prosecutors, and the cops and their highly instrumental relation to the truth about anything. In the realist world Sorkin inhabits, and indeed in the unwritten rules of contemporary melodrama,  no one does anything without a payoff of some sort.  The few exceptions dare to do so because they are cracked, barmy, gone bananas. Clearly we can’t have role models like these running amok. Unlike the pious final scene of defendants reading a roll of American dead in Vietnam (which handily serves the double function of implying protesters only wanted to save their own skins), in reality, David Dellinger, one of the most extraordinary men I ever met, on more than one occasion prior to court proceedings  read out names of the daily death toll in Vietnam.  But he scrupulously included Vietnamese names, a more pointedly ambitious list than the film indicated the defendants were undertaking. I’ve always believed the worst fate than can befall the departed is to have some hopelessly unattuned fellow write their biography and, boy, this film affirms it.


Kurt Jacobsen is Books review editor at Logos.


Latest Issue

2024: Vol. 23, No. 1

Latest Issue

2024: Vol. 23, No. 1

By Anthony DiMaggio: The War on Anti-Racism: The Mainstreaming of Social Movements, and the Emerging Backlash

By Joy James: The Algorithm of AntiRacism

By Lawrence Davidson: Israel’s Road to Apartheid and the Fate of International Law

By James Block: The Road Not (Yet) Taken II: From Culture Wars to a New History

By Russell Jacoby: High Court of Literary Correctness

By Benjamin Shepard: From Pandemic to Solidarity, Mutual Aid from Plague Days to Autonomous Zones

By Charles Thorpe: Toward Species Being

By Kurt Jacobsen: Stockholm Syndrome and The Trial of the Chicago 7

By Bill Nevins: Poetry Review Column

By Geoffrey Kurtz: Review Essay: J. Toby Reiner, Michael Walzer (Polity Press, 2020); Michael Walzer and Astrid von Busekist, Justice is Steady Work: A Conversation on Political Theory (Polity Press, 2020)

By Robin Melville: Review Essay: Leo Panitch & Colin Leys, Searching for Socialism: The Project of the Labour New Left from Benn to Corbyn (London: Verso: 2020)

By Benjamin Shepard: Review: Christophe Broqua, Action = Vie: A History of AIDS Activism and Gay Politics in France. (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2020).

By Aidan J. Beatty: Review: Tanya Lavin, Culture Warlords: My Journey into the Dark Web of White Supremacy. New York: Hatchette Books, 2020)

By Jeremy F. Walton: Patricia Morris, Fetishism, Psychoanalysis, Anthropology (London: Author’s Collective Press, 2020).

By Warren Leming: Review: Mark Harris, Mike Nichols: A Life. New York: Penguin, 2021.

By Sarah Kamal: Review: Eben Kirksey, The Mutant Project: Inside the Global Race to Genetically Modify Humans. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2020.