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In Netflix’s The Trial of the Chicago 7, Aaron Sorkin tackles an all-too-relevant court case

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Any time a story from history is retold for the big screen (or, these days, for the little screen), one fundamental question must be answered: Why now?

Filmmakers don’t (or shouldn’t) revisit the past just because they think it’s kind of a cool story that will make bank at the box office. Real people’s lives are being mined for material, after all. So if you’re going to retell a historical tale, you need a reason: parallels to the present, or inspiring heroism, or a lesson of some kind.

We can ask this question of Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7 and find several obvious answers. Sorkin — one of the few screenwriters whose name is a household brand unto itself — originally wrote the script back in 2007, but the project got shelved during the 2007–’08 writers’ strike. He picked it up again in 2018 with a presidential election in the middle distance, and it’s easy to understand why: The film is a lightly fictionalized courtroom drama based on the six-month trial of seven men accused of conspiring to cross state lines and incite riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. And it rings all those “now more than ever” bells that Hollywood has loved to ring (and ring and ring) during the Trump era, albeit with a little more finesse than some.

Does The Trial of the Chicago 7 work as a film? Sometimes! From his TV series The West Wing to movies like The Social Network and Steve Jobs, Sorkin is indelibly associated with a few idiosyncrasies, two of which matter most here: a tight, wordy dialogue style (often fired off while speakers hurry from one place to another), and grandstanding characters with progressive but rarely radical notions of American politics. By those markers, The Trial of the Chicago 7 is identifiably Sorkin’s work, sometimes to its detriment, particularly as the movie rounds third base and heads for home plate.

But the movie is effective in spite of its foibles. It’s an ensemble piece that tells a complex story cleanly. And even its missteps hint as to why Sorkin chose to return to this historical moment now.

Sorkin puts a Hollywood gloss on the story of the Chicago 7. It’s mostly successful.

The Chicago 7, played in the movie by a uniformly outstanding cast, were Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen), Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong), David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch), Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne), Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp), John Froines (Danny Flaherty), and Lee Weiner (Noah Robbins). All seven men were activists who used different tactics but shared the same goal: to end the war in Vietnam. (I don’t know if Cohen and Strong are the best of the bunch, but their performances suggest they’re having an immense amount of fun; Lynch is particularly good, as well, reminding me he’s one of the great unsung character actors of our time.)

Representing different organizations and not coordinating with one another, they all traveled to Chicago in 1968 to participate in protests outside the DNC that would grab the attention of not so much the delegates as the entire country. Denied permits by the city, their demonstrations ended with police beatings and bloodshed, which they contended were started by Chicago police. The federal government charged the men with conspiracy and crossing state lines with intent to start a riot, and the trial began in September 1968 under Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella).

A set for The Trial of the Chicago 7.
Kelvin Harrison Jr., Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Mark Rylance, Aaron Sorkin, and Eddie Redmayne on the set of The Trial of Chicago 7.
Niko Tavernise/Netflix

An eighth man, Bobby Seale (a stunning Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), co-founder of the Black Panther Party, was also in Chicago to speak at a demonstration. He was swept into their case, and famously petitioned the court to delay the trial so the attorney of his choosing could have gallbladder surgery. After he was denied by Judge Hoffman, he petitioned to represent himself, which the judge also denied, and then continued to loudly protest this breach of his rights during the hearing. Eventually, he was bound and gagged in the courtroom; then he was severed from the trial altogether, leaving the other seven men as co-defendants.

The introductions of all of these men, and the first half of the film, are mainly devoted to showing their different styles of anti-war activism. Hoffman and Rubin are the disruptive hippies; Dellinger the peaceful grownup; Hayden the principled statesman; Davis the young radical; and Froines and Weiner are just happy to find themselves in such august company. What they all have in common is their intense hatred for the Vietnam War and the fact that they are white.

Seale, in clear contrast, is Black. And we’re meant to understand that the judge’s actions toward him — which differ from the way he treats the seven white defendants — are part of the long-running American tradition of justice lifting her blindfold.

At the center of the trial is the men’s attorney William Kunstler (Mark Rylance, tremendous as always) and the government prosecutor Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). The latter is a character who, by all accounts, has been substantially altered for this film, presumably to transform him into an avatar for those in the audience inclined to cock an eyebrow at the defendants. The historical record suggests Schultz was more of a hard-driving idealogue than the even-handed attorney we meet in The Trial of the Chicago 7, who gets to play the part of, if not a hero, at least a Pretty Good Guy by the end.

Softening Schulz is one of a number of tweaks to the facts that Sorkin makes for the film, something he has done plenty of times in the past; The Social Network, which might be his best script, plays very fast and loose with characters and events alike. Sorkin’s aim is to tell a good story, and reality does not always comply. The fun of being a screenwriter is that you get to create reality.

A group of protestors approach a police station.
Caitlin Fitzgerald, Alan Metoskie, Alex Sharp, Jeremy Strong, John Carroll Lynch, Sacha Baron Cohen, and Noah Robbins in The Trial of the Chicago 7.
Niko Tavernise / Netflix

There’s a reason we need these reminders of the past

How you feel about Sorkin’s historical liberties will probably determine how you react to this film. Not because anyone thinks The Trial of the Chicago 7 should have been a documentary — there have already been several about the same sequence of events, and you can stream them if you like — but because Sorkin takes those liberties to fit this tale to the contours of the classic Hollywood courtroom drama. And classic Hollywood courtroom dramas have to end in triumph, the underdog winning out over those of whom society approves.

I was with the film right till the end, when it makes this heel turn, which I think is ineffective — or, at least, could have been more effective handled another way, one that would probably have involved hewing more closely to the facts. Sorkin doesn’t change the outcome of the trial, but the way he moves pieces of history around is clearly bent toward turning The Trial of the Chicago 7 into a Hollywood tale of underdog courtroom triumph. (I don’t want to spoil the movie’s beats, but I will say that Sorkin’s placement of events near its conclusion, combined with the requisite swelling triumphal music, shifts the tone of The Trial of the Chicago 7 into the kind of fairy tale that I’d hoped the movie would avoid.)

But the way he ends the film gives me the sense that Sorkin’s answer to the “why now?” question would be simple: Because very little has changed. The forces that tried to pin the Chicago 7, not to mention Bobby Seale, to the wall are still active and powerful. We hear a lot of the same rhetoric today. And retelling the story has an effect — especially when you put a bunch of movie stars in it and send it to Netflix, where it’s bound to be seen by a lot of people.

Maybe Sorkin’s idea is to stir people to action. But I think the movie answers the question of “why now” a little differently. For people like me — a 30-something whose parents were still in grade school when this monumental trial went down — a glossy Hollywood movie like The Trial of the Chicago 7, about things I can’t remember and that many people would like society to forget, can do something truly useful.

Here’s why: In my adult lifetime, I’ve lived through 9/11, various unending wars, a memorable uptick in blatant hate toward ethnic and religious minorities, mounting environmental insecurity, and multiple “once-in-a-lifetime” recessions. That’s without even mentioning Donald Trump’s disastrous, norms-obliterating administration, which has had the additional effect of destroying the trust many Americans below the age of 40 once had in governmental, social, and religious institutions. From my side of the age divide, more often than not, things seem pretty bleak.

Mark Rylance and Eddie Redmayne in The Trial of the Chicago 7.
Niko Tavernise / Netflix

I’ve responded by dipping back into history — specifically, by going back a half-century, to right around the late 1960s. What I’ve found there is depressing, and a little comforting. Depressing because much of what we hear in public discourse today about law and order, radicals, riots, policing, voter suppression, and all the rest is just ripped out of the past and barely even repackaged. What we see on the news isn’t even a reboot; it feels like a lazy rerun, sped up by 50 percent.

But comforting because it destroys the fanciful notion peddled by too many leaders that things were better not all that long ago. Studying this history puts our current reality on a continuum with the past, rather than representing it as a uniquely terrible time in human history. We know the world we are inheriting is a wreck; it’s useful to understand exactly why, and to see which myths we hear from grandstanding politicians made it so.

And retellings like The Trial of the Chicago 7 are an invitation to imagine which threads of goodness we can hang onto. Sorkin’s fairy-tale ending is, I think, a bit of a misstep, shifting the tone away from sobriety toward something significantly more self-congratulatory.

But one theme his chosen ending underlines is that, at least in his rendering, the fight over Vietnam and the fight over policing and the fight over who matters to the law is, ultimately, a fight about who is worth honoring. Those who are lost in political fights are too often those who fell on battlefields or in parks or city streets, caught in a firestorm they didn’t start. Honoring them is an act of revolution — and The Trial of the Chicago 7 argues that the fight to keep them from being lost in the first place has been going on a long, long time.

The Trial of the Chicago 7 is streaming on Netflix.


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Trump’s misleading tweet about changing your vote, briefly explained

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Searches for changing one’s vote did not trend following the recent presidential debate, and just a few states appear to have processes for changing an early vote. But that didn’t stop President Trump from wrongly saying otherwise on Tuesday.

In early morning posts, the president falsely claimed on Twitter and Facebook that many people had Googled “Can I change my vote?” after the second presidential debate and said those searching wanted to change their vote over to him. Trump also wrongly claimed that most states have a mechanism for changing one’s vote. Actually, just a few states appear to have the ability, and it’s rarely used.

Twitter did not attach a label to Trump’s recent tweet.
Twitter

Trump’s claim about what was trending on Google after the debate doesn’t hold up. Searches for changing one’s vote were not among Google’s top trending searches for the day of the debate (October 22) or the day after. Searches for “Can I change my vote?” did increase slightly around the time of the debate, but there is no way to know whether the bump was related to the debate or whether the people searching were doing so in support of Trump.

It was only after Trump’s posts that searches about changing your vote spiked significantly. It’s worth noting that people were also searching for “Can I change my vote?” during a similar period before the 2016 presidential election.

Google declined to comment on the accuracy of Trump’s post.

Trump also claimed that these results indicate that most of the people who were searching for how to change their vote support him. But the Google Trends tool for the searches he mentioned does not provide that specific information.

Perhaps the most egregiously false claim in Trump’s recent posts is about “most states” having processes for changing your early vote. In fact, only a few states have such processes, and they can come with certain conditions. For instance, in Michigan, voters who vote absentee can ask for a new ballot by mail or in person until the day before the election.

The Center for Election Innovation’s David Becker told the Associated Press that changing one’s vote is “extremely rare.” Becker explained, “It’s hard enough to get people to vote once — it’s highly unlikely anybody will go through this process twice.”

Trump’s post on Facebook was accompanied by a link to Facebook’s Voting Information Center.
Facebook

At the time of publication, Trump’s false claims had drawn about 84,000 and 187,000 “Likes” on Twitter and Facebook, respectively. Trump’s posts accelerated searches about changing your vote in places like the swing state of Florida, where changing one’s vote after casting it is not possible. Those numbers are a reminder of the president’s capacity to spread misinformation quickly.

On Facebook, the president’s post came with a label directing people to Facebook’s Voting Information Center, but no fact-checking label. Twitter had no annotation on the president’s post. Neither company responded to a request for comment.

That Trump is willing to spread misinformation to benefit himself and his campaign isn’t a surprise. He does that a lot. Still, just days before a presidential election in which millions have already voted, this latest episode demonstrates that the president has no qualms about using false claims about voting to cause confusion and sow doubt in the electoral process.

Open Sourced is made possible by Omidyar Network. All Open Sourced content is editorially independent and produced by our journalists.


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Nearly 6,000 civilian casualties in Afghanistan so far this year

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From January to September, 5,939 civilians – 2,117 people killed and 3,822 wounded – were casualties of the fighting, the UN says.

Nearly 6,000 Afghan civilians were killed or wounded in the first nine months of the year as heavy fighting between government forces and Taliban fighters rages on despite efforts to find peace, the United Nations has said.

From January to September, there were 5,939 civilian casualties in the fighting – 2,117 people killed and 3,822 wounded, the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) said in a quarterly report on Tuesday.

“High levels of violence continue with a devastating impact on civilians, with Afghanistan remaining among the deadliest places in the world to be a civilian,” the report said.

Civilian casualties were 30 percent lower than in the same period last year but UNAMA said violence has failed to slow since the beginning of talks between government negotiators and the Taliban that began in Qatar’s capital, Doha, last month.

An injured girl receives treatment at a hospital after an attack in Khost province [Anwarullah/Reuters]

The Taliban was responsible for 45 percent of civilian casualties while government troops caused 23 percent, it said. United States-led international forces were responsible for two percent.

Most of the remainder occurred in crossfire, or were caused by ISIL (ISIS) or “undetermined” anti-government or pro-government elements, according to the report.

Ground fighting caused the most casualties followed by suicide and roadside bomb attacks, targeted killings by the Taliban and air raids by Afghan troops, the UN mission said.

Fighting has sharply increased in several parts of the country in recent weeks as government negotiators and the Taliban have failed to make progress in the peace talks.

At least 24 people , mostly teens, were killed in a suicide bomb attack at an education centre in Kabul [Mohammad Ismail/Reuters]

The Taliban has been fighting the Afghan government since it was toppled from power in a US-led invasion in 2001.

Washington blamed the then-Taliban rulers for harbouring al-Qaeda leaders, including Osama bin Laden. Al-Qaeda was accused of plotting the 9/11 attacks.

Calls for urgent reduction of violence

Meanwhile, the US envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, said on Tuesday that the level of violence in the country was still too high and the Kabul government and Taliban fighters must work harder towards forging a ceasefire at the Doha talks.

Khalilzad made the comments before heading to the Qatari capital to hold meetings with the two sides.

“I return to the region disappointed that despite commitments to lower violence, it has not happened. The window to achieve a political settlement will not stay open forever,” he said in a tweet.

There needs to be “an agreement on a reduction of violence leading to a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire”, added Khalilzad.

A deal in February between the US and the Taliban paved the way for foreign forces to leave Afghanistan by May 2021 in exchange for counterterrorism guarantees from the Taliban, which agreed to sit with the Afghan government to negotiate a permanent ceasefire and a power-sharing formula.

But progress at the intra-Afghan talks has been slow since their start in mid-September and diplomats and officials have warned that rising violence back home is sapping trust.

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Classic toy tie-up: Etch A Sketch maker to acquire Rubik’s Cube

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Spin Master Corp., the company behind the Etch A Sketch and Paw Patrol brands, has agreed to acquire Rubik’s Brand Ltd. for about $50 million, tying together two of the world’s most iconic toy brands.

The merger comes at a boom time for classic toymakers, as parents turn to familiar products to entertain kids stuck in lockdown. Like sales of Uno, Monopoly and Barbie dolls, Rubik’s Cube purchases have spiked during the pandemic, according to the puzzle maker’s chief executive officer, Christoph Bettin. He expects sales to jump 15% to 20% in 2020, compared with a normal year, when people purchase between 5 million and 10 million cubes.

By acquiring Rubik’s, Toronto-based Spin Master can better compete with its larger rivals, Hasbro Inc. and Mattel Inc. All three companies have pivoted to become less reliant on actual product sales, diversifying into television shows, films and broader entertainment properties based on their toys. Spin Master CEO Anton Rabie said he wouldn’t rule out films or TV shows based on Rubik’s Cubes, but he was focused for now on creating more cube-solving competitions and crossmarketing it with the company’s other products, like the Perplexus.

“Whoever you are, it really has a broad appeal from a consumer standpoint,” Rabie said in an interview. “It’s actually going to become the crown jewel; it will be the most important part of our portfolio worldwide.”

Hungarian inventor Erno Rubik created the Rubik’s Cube in 1974, a solid block featuring squares with colored stickers that users could twist and turn without it falling apart. It gained popularity in the 1980s and has remained one of the best-selling toys of all time, spawning spinoff versions, international competitions of puzzle solvers, books and documentaries.

The toy has been particularly well-suited to pandemic conditions. During lockdowns, parents have sought to give kids puzzles that boost problem-solving skills useful in math and science careers. Normally, toys tied to major film franchises are among the most popular products headed into the holidays, but studios have delayed the release of major new movies because of coronavirus. So classic products are experiencing a mini-renaissance.

“The whole pandemic has really increased games and puzzles,” Rabie said. “But whether the pandemic existed or didn’t exist, we’d still buy Rubik’s. It’s had such steady sales for decades.”

Rubik’s CEO Bettin said it was the right time to sell the company, with the founding families behind it ready to move on. London-based Rubik’s Brand was formed out of a partnership between Erno Rubik and the late entrepreneur Tom Kremer, while private equity firm Bancroft Investment holds a minority stake in the company.

Early on, Bettin felt Spin Master was the right home for the puzzle toy, he said. Spin Master, which was started by a group of three friends in 1994, has expanded through the purchase of well-known brands, including Erector sets and Etch A Sketch. Rabie says he works to honor the “legacy” of those products, which Bettin cited as a key reason to sell the brand to Spin Master over larger companies that were interested.

“It was important for us to not be lost in the crowd, and to be sufficiently important and cared for,” Bettin said. “And there’s a balance between being with someone large enough to invest, and agile enough to ensure you are key part of their plans.”

Spin Master won’t own Rubik’s Cubes in time for the holiday season – the transaction is expected to close on Jan. 4. At that time, the company will move Rubik’s operations from a small office in London’s Notting Hill neighborhood to Spin Master’s new games operations center in Long Island.

Some of Rubik’s Brand’s 10 employees will be part of the transition, but they won’t stay permanently, Bettin said.

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