Analysis of the Trial Prep Scene in ‘Chicago 7:’ Tom Hayden Cracks Under Pressure; Abbie Hoffman Discovers Common Ground
At the Movies
By MARK ZIOBRO January 26, 2021
There’s a central theme that runs constant through Aaron Sorkin’s “The Trial of the Chicago 7”—that of a ‘political trial.’ His film, apropos for not only its time in the ‘60s but also today’s political climate, sheds light on events and perspectives shared differently by not just its viewing audience, but its own players. 21 festival wins later, and “Chicago 7” is perhaps a shoe-in for Oscar nods. But by analyzing one of its key scenes—whereby Eddie Redmayne’s Tom Hayden realizes he is in over his head as he is relentlessly questioned by Mark Rylance’s William Kunstler—is a masterclass on connecting emotions through cinema, and filmmaking and scriptwriting at its best.
The stage is set: Hayden, the self-appointed ‘leader’ of the seven (due to not only his squeaky-clean image, but also his own ego and set of principles) has come to heads with Sacha Baron Cohen’s Abbie Hoffman for most of the film’s run. He accuses Hoffman of being a joke and a pariah: elections are lost because of the Hippie-like antics he brings to the table; they are won, he balks, by hard work and being able to work with others. He despises everything Hoffman stands for: his flamboyance, his bombastic nature, his disrespect for anything and everything authority.
Hoffman isn’t as angry or defensive, but questions Hayden’s drive and his intentions. He accuses Hayden of sacrificing the integrity of the movement for the hopeful goals of the future; of wanting to put to the back-burner everything Hoffman cares for now for the hopes of crumbs of change decades down the road. They almost come to blows. And then comes the bomb: Kunstler walks in with damning evidence, an audio tape that incontrovertibly shows Hayden screaming the command: “If blood’s going to flow, let it flow all over City!” to a riled-up mob. His squeaky-clean image is gone, and maybe so is their whole defense.
That is, until a closer look.
The revolution will be televised: Hoffman and a group of protestors meet armed cops on the streets of Chicago (Dreamworks Pictures, 2020).
Sorkin arranges his characters carefully. Hayden insists he can still take the stand, and Kuntsler grills him like the prosecution will. And while Hayden cracks under pressure, his voice rising as the rest of the group simply watches on, it’s soon evident this isn’t meant to be a preview to his testimony; it’s the on-screen trial of he and Hoffman’s value systems, played out in real time. But then a surprising thing happens: Hayden lets it slip that by ‘blood,’ he mean’t ‘our blood’—signifying the beating protesters were taking from the police—and suddenly Kunstler gets it. And Hoffman does too.
It’s at this moment the tide turns and the Hoffman/Hayden feud ends. Why does it end? Because, two thought-adversaries realize they’re on the same side. No, not the same side of the defense stand, but the same side of the cause. Hayden’s the progressive liberal next door; Hoffman the in-your-face Hippie many Americans had grown to despise. But in this moment they realize that though they have different presentations, they have the same goal: stopping the war, having a voice—and, as a byproduct, fighting the systemic police brutality that wants nothing more than to shut them up. Hoffman pontificates some flight of ideas and non-sequiturs, but you can’t mistake the inescapable grin on his face: Hayden gets it; maybe he always has. And Hoffman’s entire being is aglow with that look one gets when they realize someone else not only feels, but shares the very thing that drives your being.
In a movie of powerful scenes and moments, this scene sticks out as one of its most poignant. It’s perfected by the acting of its players, but designed to this effect by Sorkin’s near-perfect script. Show, don’t tell. Sorkin, Baron Cohen, Rylance, and Redmayne don’t force their values down our throats—they let us do one of the hardest things for films to do: they let us in and let us feel it.