The year is 1969 and, in an Illinois courtroom, 8 political radicals stand accused of conspiring to disrupt the 1968 Democratic Convention. The prosecution is putting the entire anti-war movement on trial while the defendants are determined to disrupt the system, even if it means being convicted. The eight defendants come from all different sides of the anti-war movement. Jerry Rubin (Barry Miller) and Abbie Hoffman (Michael Lembeck) represent the intentionally absurd Yippies. Tom Hayden (Brian Benben) and Rennie Davis (Robert Carradine) are associated with the Students for a Democratic Society. Bobby Seale (Carl Lumbly) is one of the founders of the Black Panthers while David Dellinger (Peter Boyle) is a longtime peace activist. John Friones (David Kagan) and Lee Weiner (Robert Fieldsteel) represent the common activists, the people who traveled to Chicago to protest despite not being a leader of any of the various organizations. Prosecuting the Chicago 8 are Richard Schulz (David Clennon) and Tom Foran (Harris Yulin). Defending the 8 are two radical lawyers, Leonard Wienglass (Elliott Gould) and William Kunstler (Robert Loggia). Presiding over the trial is the fearsome and clearly biased Judge Julius Hoffman (David Opatoshu).
Conspiracy: The Trial of the Chicago 8 is a dramatization of the same story that inspired Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7 but, of the two films, it’s Jeremy Kagan’s The Trial of the Chicago 8 that provides a more valuable history lesson. By setting all of the action in the courtroom and recreating only what was said during the trial, director Jeremy Kagan and his cast avoid the contrived drama that marred so much of Sorkin’s film. Kagan trusts that the true story is interesting enough to stand on its own. Kagan includes documentary footage from the convention protest itself and also interviews with the people who were actually there. While Kagan may not have had the budget that Sorkin did, his film has the authenticity that Sorkin’s lacked. Kagan also has the better cast, with Michael Lembeck and Barry Miller both making Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin into something more than the mere caricatures that they are often portrayed as being.
The Trial of the Chicago 8 was a film that Jeremy Kagan spent a decade trying to make. When he first tried to sell the idea behind the film to CBS in 1976, Kagan had Marlon Brando, Walter Matthau, George C. Scott, and Dustin Hoffman all willing to work for scale and take part in the production. CBS still passed on the project, saying that no one was interested in reliving the 60s. It wasn’t until 1987 that Jeremy Kagan was finally able to revive the film, this time with HBO. It actually worked out for the best because, with HBO, there was no need to try to come up with a “clean” version for the language that was used in the courtroom or in the interviews with the actual participants. The defendants could be themselves.
Though it has been overshadowed by Sorkin’s subsequent film, The Trial of the Chicago 8 is the definitive film about what happened in the aftermath of the the 1968 Democratic Convention.