I was a bit worried about this movie when I first heard about it, since both Aaron Sorkin (who wrote and directed) and lead actor Sacha Baron Cohen can sometimes be over the top.
I needn’t have worried. Sorkin for the most part stays close to the record, letting this history speak for itself. The mishandling of the trial by Judge Hoffman is amply documented, right down to his pique about sharing a last name with one of the defendants. His bias in favor of the government was so blatant that it formed the basis for a successful appeal. Judge Hoffman’s treatment of Bobby Seale, the lone black defendant, was particularly appalling, and yet, not all that surprising. Abbie Hoffman’s stunts during the trial, both inside and outside the courtroom, are also amply documented, although the Yiddish epithets he threw at the judge were, sadly, not in the movie.
One of the movie’s few false notes comes near the end, when Sorkin has one of the defendants deliver a stirring tribute to the fallen in Vietnam. This never happened – an attempt was made during the trial to deliver such a statement, but the judge didn’t allow it.
The defendants were actually permitted to make statements after sentencing, and several of the defendants made moving pleas for racial justice. It’s not so well remembered now, but by the late 1960s the anti-war movement and the civil rights movement were coalescing. It was lost on nobody that the war was disproportionately being fought by non-elites, of whatever color. The back-to-back assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy stalled that effort – we will never know what the partnership of those two men would have accomplished. I wish Sorkin had left that in.
Sacha Baron Cohen does a fantastic job as Abbie Hoffman, capturing his essence if not his accent. The outstanding supporting cast, which includes many (Eddie Redmayne, Mark Rylance, Frank Langella) who are leading men in their own right, operate as the kind of ensemble you sometimes see in a high quality theatrical production, but rarely in a Hollywood film.
There’s an imaginary scene towards the end in which Eddie Redmayne, playing Tom Hayden, lectures Abbie Hoffman about his tactics, favoring working within the system to Hoffman’s publicity stunts. This scene sounds more like Sorkin than Hayden, who wasn’t quite the choir boy he is portrayed here. According to Hayden/Sorkin, Hoffman’s tactics would discredit the left for a generation.
I think Sorkin is wrong here. Hoffman was a publicity hound and loved his stunts. But he was not a fraud. He truly believed that publicity stunts were the best way t force people to pay attention to things that they were determined to ignore. I think history has shown that Hoffman got the better of that argument. As Hoffman himself said, shortly before he died by his own hand in 1989, “We were young. We were reckless. But we were right.”