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Jew vs. Jew

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chicago feart

Vincent Brook offers another perspective on The Trial of the Chicago 7.

Jewish writer-director Aaron Sorkin’s reputation as one of America’s most unflinchingly leftist filmmakers/television creators was secure well before The Trial of the Chicago 7 (2020), as was his penchant for interweaving his work with Jewish themes and characters. With his period docudrama about the notorious show trial of 1969, he’s struck the mother lode on both scores.

The Chicago 7 were originally dubbed the Chicago 8, until a mistrial was declared in the case against Black Panthers National Chairman Bobby Seale, after presiding Judge Julius Hoffman ordered Seale shackled and gagged like a runaway slave for demanding the right to represent himself. All eight defendants had been charged with crossing state lines to incite violence at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, based less on convincing evidence than on FBI chief Hoover and President Nixon’s anti-leftist crusade. Featuring a cast of high-profile radicals and set at the height of the anti-Vietnam War protest period, the trial was catnip for the media and made to order for theatrical treatment that needn’t stray far from actual events for entertainment value and political relevance — then and ongoing. Besides two torn-from-the-headlines movies in 1970 and a play in 1972, three revivals preceded Sorkin’s in 1987, 1993 and 2009, with the 2020 version’s timeliness benefiting additionally from a lengthy delay in the shooting of a script that Sorkin had written in 2007. 

Photo: Netflix

Moving the release date up to 2020, after Steven Spielberg dropped out as director, not only allowed Sorkin to direct the film himself but, more significantly, turned an allegory initially aimed at George W. Bush’s disastrous presidency into one that encompassed the even more egregious Trump era and the countervailing uplift of the Black Lives Matter movement. Of paramount interest here, the delay also added contemporary resonance to the intra-Jewish conflict in a trial that one of the Chicago 7 films called The Great Conspiracy Circus.

Photo: Netflix

Non-Jews Tom Hayden (played by Eddie Redmayne), cofounder of SDS (Students for a Democratic Society), and David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch), leader of The Mobe (The Mobilization for an End to the War in Vietnam), have prominent roles in the overall film. The stars of the courtroom theatrics, however, are four Jews: Judge Hoffman (Frank Langella), his namesake, Yippie (Youth International Party) cofounder Abbie Hoffman (Sasha Baron Cohen), defence counsel William Kunstler (Mark Rylance), and federal prosecutor Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). Abbie’s fellow Yippie leader Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong), co-counsel Leonard Weinglass (Ben Shenkman), and token defendant Lee Weiner (Noah Robbins) also were Jews but largely play second fiddle in the legal proceedings.  

Photo: Netflix

In The Times of Israel, Jordan Hoffman argues that despite the film’s ‘high concentration of Jews,’ Sorkin’s loosely adapted treatment of the trial, by striking from the record some of the most telling Jewish moments, ‘significantly de-Judaized’ the actual event. I believe this overstates the case, for the importance of the above-mentioned co-stars goes beyond their simply being of the Jewish persuasion. They also represent three spheres of influence that Jews have dominated since the mass exodus of Ostjuden (Eastern European Jews) to the United States at the turn of the 20th century: radical politics, comedy and the law. These three spheres and their Jewish inflection, masterfully combined and pitted against one another by Sorkin, jump to the fore as soon as the gavel is sounded.

Photo: Netflix

When Judge Hoffman interrupts prosecutor Schultz’s opening remarks to clarify that there were two Hoffmans in the courtroom, lest there be confusion in the matter, Abbie Hoffman doesn’t miss a beat. Eliciting gallery laughter and a glower from the balding judge, the long-haired ‘Groucho Marxist’ (kudos to reviewer Hoffman) interjects his first one-liner: ‘Man, I don’t think there’s much chance they’re gonna mix us up.’ Thrust into his role as straight-man, Judge Hoffman sets up the next routine by intoning, ‘Let the record reflect that the defendant and I are not related,’ to which the buffoonish Yippie retorts: ‘Father, no!’ Then the capper, which brings down the house. The judge to Abbie: ‘Mr. Hoffman, are you familiar with ‘contempt of court’?’ Abbie: ‘It’s practically a religion for me, sir.’

Photo: Netflix

Of course, as with the best satirical humour, dead seriousness undergirds the repartee. The Yippie’s ‘religion’ that spits on tyrannical authority and the judge’s overwrought denial of blood relations with a member of the tribe point to a gaping generational, ideological, and Jewish divide — in 1969, but even more so in 2020.

Photo: Netflix

In his witness-stand testimony at trial’s end, fictionally scripted by Sorkin, Abbie shows his, and the counterculture’s, more solemn side. Asked by Judge Hoffman to state his last name, the Brandeis University graduate trades his tummler’s mask for a professor’s mantle: ‘My grandfather’s name was Shaboysnakoff . . . he was a Russian Jew protesting antisemitism and was assigned a name that sounds like yours.’ ‘Sounds like,’ reviewer Hoffman rightly points out, suggests a possible class divide between the wanna-be proletariat Ostjude and seemingly bourgeois Westjude (German Jew). In reality, both Hoffmans came from Russian immigrant backgrounds. And Abbie’s larger point is not their shared Jewish heritage but the divergent roads they’ve travelled as modern-day Jewish Americans. Judge Hoffman: ‘What is your date of birth?’ Abbie: ‘Psychologically, 1960.’

Photo: Netflix

The shorthand reference to ‘the sixties’ is clear, but from a Jewish perspective, it carries a vastly different meaning in 2020 than it would have carried in 1969, or in the early Chicago 7 films and play. At that time, a reactionary Jew like Judge Hoffman was an anomaly. The Jewish community was denominationally fissured, but Jews politically were pretty much on the same page, and it was decidedly verso. They were stereotyped, not without grounds, as socialists and communists, and were disproportionately numbered, among Whites, in the civil rights movement and, altogether, as leaders and shock troops in the feminist, counterculture, and anti-war movements. They voted, as they had since FDR, overwhelmingly Democratic, and were generally supportive of an Israel founded by socialist pioneers and not yet transformed by the Yom Kippur War from underdog to overlord in the Middle East.

Photo: Netflix

By 2020, to the contrary, with the Palestinian problem more intractable than ever under Netanyahu and some Jews even supporting a boycott of Israel, with the rise of ultra-Orthodox Jewish sects and ultra-conservative Jewish figures such as billionaire Sheldon Adelson and Trump aides Stephen Miller and Jared Kushner, and perhaps most of all, with over 40 percent of American Jews and over 50 percent of Israeli Jews identifying as secular, the Jewish community’s rock-solid left-leaning base and ethnoreligious bond had all but crumbled. In this context, Judge Hoffman is no longer an anomaly but rather a composite, of the Netanyahus, Adelsons, Millers and Kushners of the new millennium. The Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin and William Kunstler types are still around, and a large, if dwindling, majority of Jews (70 percent in 2020 versus 80 percent in 1968) still voted for the Democratic presidential candidate, but Jewry, on the whole, faced a far more fractured landscape than a half-century ago.

Photo: Netflix

This decline in Jewish solidarity is the allegorical bonus Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7 reaped from its delayed release — an ambivalent bonus to be sure. But as with the film’s symbolic indictment of Trumpism and nod to Black Lives Matter, it’s a bonus that likely will stand the film in good stead come Oscar time with the heavily liberal and Jewish Motion Picture Academy.

The Trial of the Chicago 7 is currently streaming on Netflix.

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Vincent Brook is a lecturer in media studies at UCLA. He has written or edited 10 books, most dealing with Jewish issues in film and television.
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