Not an hour ago I was lamenting that I didn’t have a chance to tell you how Steven Spielberg may be the exact wrong person to direct The Trial of the Chicago 7, and then the Movie Gods – as generous as they can be capricious – dropped this in my lap: Coming Soon, using their amazing powers of ‘reading,’ have discovered that the Vanity Fair write-up on Indy 4 may contain some hints as to who, besides Borat, will be starring in Chicago 7.
Thus spake Vanity Fair: My glance strays to a side table, where headshots of actors under consideration for his likely next directing project, Chicago 7—about the conspiracy trial that grew out of protests at the 1968 Democratic convention—lie on the surface. Among them I spy Will Smith, Taye Diggs, Adam Arkin, and Kevin Spacey; Sacha Baron Cohen (as Abbie Hoffman) and Philip Seymour Hoffman (as William Kunstler) are also linked to the project, which has a screenplay by Aaron Sorkin. (It should be noted here that Chicago 7 will be partly based on Chicago 10, a new documentary produced by Graydon Carter, Vanity Fair’s editor, and Brett Morgen, the film’s director.) After Chicago 7, Spielberg will probably go on to direct Lincoln, with Liam Neeson in the title role.
Here’s some background for those who aren’t that familiar with what may be my favorite event of the 20th century:
In 1968 the anti-war forces descended on Chicago during the Democratic National Convention. Activists from all over the country came to town and the peaceful demonstrations turned into a riot instigated by the police*, at the behest of Mayor Richard Daley, who ran the town like a feudal king. And when I say a riot, I’m talking about major battles in the streets of Chicago; very exciting stuff that made a lot of people think the country was seriously on the brink of a revolution in the weeks to come.
The establishment, which got a black eye when America saw their youth being beaten and tear gassed in the streets, struck back by attempting to break the very back of the peace and social justice movements in the United States. Eight people seen as leaders of the movements were indicted on federal charges of conspiracy to incite a riot – even though many of them didn’t necessarily get along or know each other that well. The original eight were:
Abbie Hoffman, a leader of the countercultural Yippies (and my personal hero in life), who masterminded an alternative nominee for the DNC: Pigasus, a real pig.
Jerry Rubin, a fellow leader of the Yippies. Jerry eventually sold out and became a yuppie. God hit him with a car in vengeance.
Rennie Davis, an organizer for Students for a Democratic Society, a powerful and influential radical group.
Tom Hayden, an organize for the SDS and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, and a drafter of the historic Port Huron Statement. Went on to politics and the vagina of Jane Fonda.
John Froines, a chemist! He was accused of crossing state lines to make explosives.
Dave Dellinger, a life long activist who has participated in and organized some of the most important social justice actions of the last 50 years.
Lee Weiner, a guy who didn’t even seem to like the other defendants.
Bobby Seale, a Black Panther leader who was bound and gagged during the trial before having his case severed from the rest and getting the then-record jailtime for contempt of court (pretty much everybody in this case, even the lawyers, got some good contempt of court time).
It’s important to keep in mind that people like Rennie Davis and Tom Hayden were looking for political change, while Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin were looking for wholescale social change on a huge level. They were trying to sell a whole alternative lifestyle. While these groups had similar interests in Chicago, anyone who knew what they were about would have scoffed at the idea of them working together as they were charged.
When Seale was severed from the case, it became the Chicago 7, obviously. The activists were defended by William Kunstler and Leonard Weinglass of the Center for Constitutional Rights (sounds like a commie organization to me!), and the case was overseen by Judge Julius Hoffman. While he was no relation to Abbie, he was the ideal straight man for a radical whose whole playbook seemed written by Groucho Marx.
The trial was a disaster and a circus, largely engineered by the defendants (although Judge Hoffman was more than happy to make things nuttier whenever possible). Hoffman and Rubin would show up in costume – judge’s robes, Revolutionary War uniforms – and the back and forth between the judge and everyone else in his courtroom reads like a screwball comedy. The script for Chicago 7, by Aaron Sorkin, almost needs only take huge chunks of the transcript and have people say them verbatim.
Anyway, Will Smith and Taye Diggs would be playing Bobby Seale. It’s hard to imagine Will Smith spitting curse words at a judge in a movie, though, so I sort of doubt that happens. Adam Arkin would make an AMAZING Judge Hoffman, and I’m praying that’s who he is up for. I don’t know who Spacey would be – a member of the prosecution team? That’s a thankless role, but Spacey’s smarminess would be good there.
What wouldn’t be good is Spielberg. The trial of the Chicago 8/7 is a watershed moment in radical activist history, and it’s a pivotal moment in the counterculture’s attack on straight culture (we’re living in a world whose sexual mores and standards of politeness and decorum were massively affected by this time period). This is all about a segment of society for which Spielberg has never had a real feel. He’s a straight guy, he’s an establishment guy. His social causes are not cutting edge ones but ones whose validity were established long ago. Slavery? The Holocaust? Has there ever even been a gay character in a Spielberg film besides Quint in Jaws? Going by Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls is tricky, but you get the sense from that book that Lucas and Spielberg ‘won’ the 70s because they were not counterculture – they knew how to operate in a straight business world and they weren’t high and pushing social boundaries. Yeah, Spielberg has made better films than Peter Fonda, but Peter Fonda remains Peter Fucking Fonda.
I don’t doubt that Spielberg could direct a good movie out of this material, especially with a good script by Sorkin (who has smoked crack, so I know he’s with the program), but will he get to the heart of it? Will he really understand these people and what they were trying to do? It’s great theater, but with Spielberg will it be a true movie that ‘gets’ it? Looking back at the 60s, a lot of these people were sort of cuddly, but at the time they were dangerous. I don’t know if there’s a filmmaker who gets dangerous less than Spielberg does. The closest film in his ouevre to what The Trial of the Chicago 7 is Catch Me If You Can, and if Spielberg makes the two Hoffmans come together as surrogate family members in conflict, I’ll shit my pants. Catch Me If You Can was the lightest possible movie you could make about a womanizing con man and pathological liar, and The Trial of the Chicago 7, done wrong, could be just as frothy.
But there’s not much I can do at this point. I know that Spielberg is a habitual cruiser of the interwebs and reads a lot of what is written about him. If you’re reading this after doing the latest round of edits on Indy 4, Mr. Spielberg, I beg you to resist your urges to sugar coat this story. Step outside of your suburban comfort zone – like the Chicago 7 did, actually – and imagine what it’s like to be subversive. Consider the position of someone who would rather smash the system than work within it. Remember that it wasn’t all about the funny sideburns and the courtroom antics, but that it was about a moment in time when brave young people stood up against a corrupt and outdated government, when no idea was too crazy. I’m afraid that you’re going to approach this era like your buddy Bob Zemeckis did in Forrest Gump – which even has an Abbie Hoffman cameo – and fuck it up. My advice is to get Bob into your office, listen to all of his ideas and the do exactly the opposite of that. Call someone like David O Russell, who was actually an activist before he was a director (and who I think would be perfect for this movie) and get his ideas instead.
Just don’t fuck it up.
*This isn’t just me as a
leftie speaking. The National Commission on the Causes and Prevention
of Violence, formed by LBJ, found the Chicago riots to be ‘police