What Aaron Sorkin Got Wrong in ‘The Trial of the Chicago 7’

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"Chicago 7" Art by Mr. Fish.

The Trial of the Chicago 7,” an Aaron Sorkin film that recently aired on Netflix, brought an important chapter in the history of American activism to screens around the globe. Based on real events, the film dramatizes the 1969 trial of eight activists who were arrested during the Vietnam War protests that took place in Chicago at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Tom Hayden, Rennie Davis, David Dellinger, Lee Weiner, John Froines, and Bobby Seale were all charged with attempted incitement of a riot after the Chicago Police Department, under orders from then Mayor Richard Daley, brutally repressed the summer demonstrations. Jon Wiener, the author of “Conspiracy in the Streets: The Extraordinary Trial of the Chicago Seven,” joins Robert Scheer on the latest installment of “Scheer Intelligence” to discuss the case and the Sorkin film. 

The historian says that one of the most egregious changes the filmmaker made in “The Trial of the Chicago 7” happens in one of the final scenes. Hayden (played by Eddie Redmayne) reads out a list of the names of American soldiers who’d died in Vietnam since the trial had begun. In reality, that scene played out very differently, Wiener explains. 

“In real life, this didn't happen at the end of the trial, it happened at the beginning of the trial; well, that's not such a big deal,” says the historian. “In real life, it wasn't Tom [Hayden] who read the list, it was Dave Dellinger who read the list; well, that's not such a big deal. But the list that Dave read at the beginning of the trial included Vietnamese names. That was the whole point: Americans and Vietnamese are dying in this war. And for Sorkin, it's only the American lives that matter.” 

The omission is one that both Wiener and Scheer argue speaks to one of the United States’ government, culture, and many of its people’s biggest sins: the inability to value the lives of non-white people, whether at home or abroad. The two point out that while Sorkin does include the heinous mistreatment of Bobby Seale--who was gagged and physically restrained in the courtroom for several days--he doesn’t extend the same respect to the Vietnamese lives lost in the very war the film’s activists were protesting. Scheer contends that the same sin can be found at the heart of the Vietnam War itself, as well as other conflicts such as the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.

Listen to the full conversation between Wiener and Scheer, who knew many of the people involved in the trial and was very active in the anti-war movement of the 1960s, and who adds his unique perspective to the film and Wiener’s book throughout the conversation. The historian also talks about his two books on Beatles icon John Lennon, “Come Together,” and “Gimme Some Truth: The John Lennon FBI Files,” as well as his most recent book with Mike Davis, “Set the Night on Fire.” The latter, which is a comprehensive look at the everyday heroes involved in the activism of the 1960s, is the subject of another episode of “Scheer Intelligence,” which you can listen to here



Joshua Scheer