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Film / The Trial of the Chicago 7

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The Trial of the Chicago 7 is a 2020 historical drama written and directed by Aaron Sorkin and starring Eddie Redmayne and Sacha Baron Cohen about the 1969-70 trial of the Chicago Seven, a group of anti-Vietnam War protesters indicted for conspiracy and crossing state lines with the intention of inciting riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. The film was produced by Paramount Pictures and DreamWorks (and the latter company's first streaming original), and ultimately sold to Netflix in light of the COVID-19 Pandemic making a lucrative theatrical distribution impossible.

In 1969 Federal prosecutor Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is bluntly ordered against his advice by the new Attorney General of the Richard Nixon Administration to make examples of a group of leftist troublemakers for their supposed role in causing trouble in Chicago in 1968.

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As for those defendants, they are divided into multiple camps, with three being moderates like Tom Hayden, Rennie Davis, and David Dellinger, and the radical Yippies of Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin. Meanwhile, two other defendants, Lee Weiner and John Froines, are at best tangentially involved in the incident if at all and the one African-American co-defendant, Black Panther chairman Bobby Seale, was definitely not involved at all.

What follows is a drawn out trial with the moderates not only frustrated by the Yippies' defiant antics undermining their case, but dealing with Judge Julius Hoffman (no relation to Abbie) who is obviously biased against them. Meanwhile, Seale, who was denied legal counsel of his own choosing for the trial since his preferred lawyer is sick, is forced to protest to almost no avail.

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Along the way, the defendants eventually find that for all their philosophical difference about political activism, they all have their own faults and ideals they can respect.

This film provide examples of:

  • 0% Approval Rating: Judge Hoffman is the extremely corrupt Hanging Judge doing everything he can to be completely unfair to the defendants and railroad them into convictions. The ending title card reveals that the city later deemed him "Unqualified".
  • Actual Pacifist: Several of the defendants, but most explicitly David Dellinger, who was such an example he draft-dodged WWII.
  • Adapted Out: The defense team is cut down from seven lawyers down to just 3: Kunstler, Weinglass, and Charles Garry. The former two are major players in the film, while the latter is completely absent in a way that causes tension in the courtroom.
  • Ambiguous Syntax: At one point, Tom Hayden makes a speech where he says "If blood is gonna flow, then let it flow all over the city". As Abbie later explains, what he meant was "If OUR blood is gonna flow", as in "if they're going to beat us up, then everyone should see it". It is, however, overall interpreted as "If the cops are going to die, then let them all die", and used as proof that he intended to start a riot. Abbie also explains that this is one of Tom's quirks and he does this sort of thing constantly.
  • Anti-Villain: Richard Schultz seems to bear no ill will towards the defendants, he advises against moving forward with the trial, he’s shown to love his daughters, he’s appalled by Judge Hoffman’s treatment of Bobby Seale, and he evens stands with the defendants in honor of the dead soldiers of Vietnam. The only thing he’s guilty of is doing his job.
  • Artistic License – History:
    • The sentencing is wildly changed from the court record. In the film, Judge Hoffman asks Hayden to give a short statement about his sentencing, to which Hayden replies with a list of the 5000 soldiers who have died since the trial began.note  In real life, each one of the seven remaining defendants took the stand to give Judge Hoffman separate "reason you suck" speeches. Dick Schultz is depicted as having stood up during the aforementioned name list as "respect for the fallen." Schultz himself confirmed that did not happen.
    • In the film, Bobby Seale's case is declared a mistrial almost immediately after he's dragged back to court in a gag and chains, which is a compression from reality — he was brought into court this way for four days. Sorkin said in an interview with The Economist that this was done to not have the audience get used to seeing him that way and therefore not normalize it.
    • Further, the film depicts that Seale's anguished outburst over the killing of Fred Hampton is what led to this appalling treatment. In reality, Hampton's killing happened after Seale's trial had already been separated from the other seven defendants.
    • The real Abbie Hoffman was quite a bit more radical than he's portrayed as here. While the film character praises American democratic institutions, saying the problem is corrupt people are in charge, Hoffman actually felt that they were imprisoning people, part of a decaying system. He was an anarchist and "hedonistic communist" in his words, wanting a revolution rather than simply reform.
    • The "take the hill" scene in Grant Park was much the opposite from what was portrayed here. In reality, protesters had "taken" it already, climbing onto the statue there. After that, the police moved in and arrested/attacked them.
    • Jerry wasn't arrested while rescuing a female protester from assault (there's no evidence that even happened) but later on the street.
    • There was no undercover agent who seduced Jerry. Rather, one served as his bodyguard, while two more also infiltrated the protestors (all were male).
    • The film portrays the violence as wholly one-sided. While it's true the police did often engage in brutality against protestors, journalists and even bystanders caught up in the fracas, almost two hundred officers were also injured (largely by hurled objects, such as makeshift weapons). This is all on film. It's not to say this justified the police brutality, but it also omits this.
    • Schultz was actually strongly onboard with the prosecution, verbally attacking the defendants and their lawyers often.
    • It's portrayed here that Bobby Seale is only on trial to make the white defendants appear more dangerous by association with a scary black man. However, he'd made a speech calling for people to shoot police who were threatening them, saying that it would be self-defense and he would congratulate those who did. Based on this he was indicted for crossing state lines to incite riot. It's probable the government wanted him indicted regardless though since they were seeking to destroy the Black Panther Party, which is shown in the film.
    • David Dellinger never punched a marshal in reality.
    • Ramsay Clark didn't discuss any call with LBJ which contradicted the prosecution.
    • Tom Hayden's contentious quote about "blood flowing all over the city" wasn't used as evidence in the trial.
    • Hayden and Abbie Hoffman didn't actually disagree the way this is portrayed. Though Hayden was more civil and restrained, he also said some explosive things just as Hoffman did. Additionally, they had less contrasting hair and dress styles (Hayden was long-haired as well, for ).
  • Ascended Extra: Two In-Universe examples:
    • Both Lee Weiner and John Froines are included in the Chicago Seven, even though they’re nowhere near as important as the other five. The group itself notes that they’re only there so that the court can pardon them, so they appear merciful while sentencing the others.
    • An even more noticeable example with Bobby Seale, who's in the trial with the Chicago Seven, even though he has zero affiliation with them. He’s noted as only being there so that his presence as a Black Panther makes the others look guilty.
  • Attempted Rape: A number of right-wing thugs assault a female protestor for using the American Flag in the march, tearing off her shirt and clearly intending on far worse, but Jerry Rubin manages to stop them. Rubin is promptly arrested after trying to get said female protestor first aid, and the wannabe-rapists get off scot-free.
  • Beware the Nice Ones:
    • David Dellinger comes across as quite possibly the most likable of the defendants, being highly opposed to violence. But once the months-long trial has taken its toll on him and he’s repeatedly manhandled by security, he loses his composure and punches an officer.
    • Tom Hayden is noted for being much more moderate than the likes of Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, but when he sees his friend Rennie Davis being beaten by the police, he loses it and goes on a passionate rant. An unfortunate example since due to a miscommunication on his part, this leads to a riot and his arrest.
    • It’s clear that Jerry Rubin has no intentions to let the protest get violent, and at first when they do, he’s horrified and tries to get out of there. But when he sees a woman about to be raped, he immediately attacks her assaulters.
  • Big Bad: Judge Julius Hoffman, who shows open bias against the defense and rules one-sidedly for the government.
  • Big Good: William Kunstler, a dedicated attorney who does all he can to defend his clients in the face of a clearly biased judge.
  • Blatant Lies:
    • The testimony of the police and FBI agents is intercut with flashbacks to what actually happened during the period they are telling the court about. At best, they choose the least-charitable interpretation possible of the protestors' actions (such as describing Alan Ginsberg's megaphone Om as an inciting warlike chant) if they don't lie outright.
    • John Mitchell feels the need to complain about Ramsey Clark slighting him. When he says Clark only did it to embarrass him, he then states that Clark was probably more embarrassed. His frequent bitching about it in just one scene says otherwise.
  • Both Sides Have a Point: Hayden is frustrated that Hoffman and the Yippies are undermining the Left's necessary goal to win elections to get the power needed to achieve their idealistic goals through the system, while Hoffman argues that the system, as represented by the unfair trial they are enduring, is not going to let them get that power anyway.
  • Chekhov's Gun: Rennie writing a list of the dead of the Vietnam War accumulating over the course of the trial. Hayden reads all 5,000+ names collected by the end in his sentencing statement to frustrate the judge.
  • Courtroom Antics: Hoffman and Rubin provide plenty of those for a legal system they have utter contempt for. The standout example comes when they come in dressed in judges' robes, are asked to remove them, and then reveal they're wearing police costumes beneath them.
  • Crusading Lawyer: Legendary civil rights attorney William Kunstler. "High-Priced Lawyers are working for free. It is the support-staff..."
  • Does This Remind You of Anything?: Sorkin began seriously considering directing his old script during the election of Donald Trump and chose to emphasize the elements of the case that reflected the Trump administration's lack of civility and abuse of power for political gain. The film was deep into post-production when the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and the subsequent protests of the Black Lives Matter Movement made the scenes of Police Brutality against protestors and the murder of Fred Hampton particularly resonant; Sorkin elected to re-edit some of those scenes with archival footage to further emphasize that point.
  • Double Standard: Bobby Seale speaks out and gets a dehumanizing beating and gagging. David Dellinger punches a guard and is otherwise treated much better. Take a guess why the former got the worse treatment.
  • Foreshadowing:
    • The first thing the US Attorney General does is note that his predecessor, Ramsey Clark, snubbed him during his inauguration. Sure enough, Clark shows up in the latter half of the film to cause problems for the prosecution.
    • Hayden mentions at one point that the actions of radical left-wing groups will cause the mainstream left to keep on losing elections and thereby not achieving anything. In real-life, following the Chicago riots of 1968, five of the next six presidential elections resulted in landslide victories for the Republicans — the exception being in 1976, when Jimmy Carter was just barely able to squeak in off the back of Watergate — which has been attributed in no small part due to the events in Chicago allowing the Republicans and the sections of the press favorable to them to paint the Democrats as being too extreme.
  • Gory Discretion Shot: Mostly not in use; the violence and Police Brutality are on full display. The exception is when Kunstler goes over the night the riots began. The police remove their badges and nameplates, the window shatters, and the next thing we see is the wrecked bar afterwards.
  • Greater-Scope Villain: Attorney General John N. Mitchell, who orders Schultz to prosecute the Eight to make an example of them.
  • Hanging Judge: Judge Hoffman soon makes it clear that he is not interested in presiding over a fair trial.
  • Hate Sink: Judge Julius Hoffman has practically nothing in the way of redeeming qualities, being absolutely determined to give the defendants the most unfair trial possible.
  • Historical Downgrade: Hayden greeted the courtroom with a fistpump on the first day (for which he was admonished) and was specifically cited for his refusal to stand on the "all rise" at one point, contrasting with his portrayal here as a polished, nervous moderate who missed the cue to not stand.
  • Historical Villain Downgrade: In real life, Richard Schultz was not the Punch-Clock Villain as portrayed in the movie, but was just as gung ho to win the case, and as antagonistic towards the defendants, as the Nixon administration was. In the real trial, he complained to the judge about the defendants' behavior on multiple occasions, and in an interview about this film, he blamed the mistreatment of Bobby Seale on the defense's tactics.
  • Historical Villain Upgrade: David Stahl's Obstructive Bureaucrat interactions with the defendants doesn't mention that Stahl was against the Vietnam War itself; he was just against protests to.
  • I Don't Pay You to Think: Inverted. Schultz tells John Mitchell "You pay me to think" as a prelude to his argument against prosecuting the Chicago 7. Mitchell is clearly of the opposite view, in spite of the fact that Schultz is a lawyer and being able to think well is a pretty major component of the job.
  • Jerkass:
    • Judge Julius Hoffman is a corrupt judge who has already decided to find the defendants guilty before the case has begun, and does everything he can to ruin their chances of appearing innocent, denying Seale the basic legal right to have legal counsel of his own choice, getting rid of jury members on their side, refusing to allow the jury to see a major witness who could turn the tide of the case, and then there’s the moment where he has Bobby Seale gagged.
    • John N. Mitchell certainly counts. He uses questionable law to get a group of people he hates convicted for a crime they didn't commit, and it's implied that a major reason why he's doing this is because Ramsey Clark snubbed him and he wants to strike back by messing with a group that Clark sided with. Even putting all that aside, Mitchell comes across as a rude asshole even in casual conversation.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Abbie Hoffman is loud mouthed and obnoxious, but it’s clear that he cares deeply about his country and the men who died in Vietnam. When asked what it would take to call off the revolution, his response is “My life”. When it is revealed that Hayden was responsible for an overexcited incitement to a militant march, it was Abbie Hoffman who realized it was an accident through a slip of the tongue and explains, albeit in a mocking tone. Regardless, since that incident makes Hayden unacceptable to take the stand, Hoffman volunteers to do so as the most eloquent of the defendants with the spine and wit to stand up to Schultz's cross-examination.
  • Jury and Witness Tampering: Kunstler and Weinglass note that jurors 6 and 11 seem to be listening to them more than the prosecution. A few days later, Judge Hoffman states that 6 and 11's families have received threatening mail, purportedly from the Black Panthers, rendering them unable to deliver an impartial verdict. It is strongly implied that the letters actually came from the FBI rather than the Panthers, who would have been unlikely to pull a stunt like that.
  • Kangaroo Court: Judge Hoffman's bias against the defendants is obvious from the moment he gavels the court into order; any attempt by the defense to try and introduce a modicum of fairness is punished with contempt of court charges. The trial itself was brought by the Nixon administration against the advice of the US Prosecutor who is assigned to it because the former Attorney General determined that there was no case. But the miscarriage of justice becomes absolutely undeniable when Seale is beaten, chained, and gagged in court. Even the prosecutor is shocked.
  • Lame Pun Reaction: When Jerry Rubin meets Daphne O'Connor in a bar, he tells her about the history of the drink she bought him (a Tom Collins), and she tells him this joke:
    Daphne O'Conner: Do you know why they eat only one egg for breakfast in France?
    Jerry Rubin: Why?
    Daphne: Because in France, one egg is an oeuf. {Beat) An oeuf.
    Jerry: Wow.
    Daphne: I know.
    Jerry: I feel so much better about my Tom Collins story.
  • Malicious Misnaming: The trial starts with Judge Hoffman flubbing Dellinger's name and getting into an argument about what the correct name actually is, despite the man sitting right there and telling him.
  • Miscarriage of Justice: What the whole trial is, with the treatment of Bobby Seale such as denying him legal counsel of his choice, denying him the chance to defend himself, and when he will not stand for this, he is beaten, chained, and gagged in the courthouse, being merely the most obvious.
  • Misplaced Accent: The result of Artistic License in this case; Mark Rylance gives Kunstler a southern drawl. The real Kunstler was from New York, and sounded like it.
  • Mood Whiplash: The end text cheekily points out that it's hard to tell how many copies of Abbie Hoffman's book are in circulation because he titled it Steal This Book. Then it tells us that he took his own life in 1989.
  • My God, What Have I Done?:
    • Hayden's realization that he started a militant march that ended in a police riot over a slip of the tongue.
    • Dellinger is horrified with himself when he loses his temper and hits one of the marshals.
  • The Mole: It comes out that there were several cops disguised as hippies, radicals, and drug dealers. They all proceed to testify in the trial.
  • Newhart Phonecall: Bernadine the receptionist has a few of these. One has her talking to a rather nasty person.
  • Nice Job Fixing It, Villain!: Schultz is the one who asks that a mistrial be declared for Seale, much to Judge Hoffman's shock. Kunstler spells out that beating, shackling, and gagging Seale in open court has just taken him from a Scary Black Man into a sympathetic figure because he is now an obvious victim of racism.
  • Obliviously Evil: Judge Hoffman's shock when he is accused of discriminating against Seale because of his race is apparently genuine, and he is sufficiently rattled by it that he grants Schultz's request for a mistrial without further resistance. It seems that, while he is openly pro-government and can't possibly fail to realise that he's undermining the defendants at every turn, he honestly didn't notice that he was treating the one black defendant far worse than the others.
  • One Steve Limit: The aversion of this trope is the subject of a joke early on:
    Judge Hoffman: And the record should reflect that defendant Hoffman and I are not related.
    Abbie Hoffman: Father, no!
    [spectator laughter]
  • Ooh, Me Accent's Slipping: Baron Cohen's command of Abbie Hoffman's New England accent is noticeably shakier than the other British actors playing Americans.
  • Pacifism Backfire: Seale's primary point-of-view.
    ''Martin's dead, Malcom's dead, Medgar's dead, Bobby's dead, Jesus is dead. They tried it peacefully, we're gonna try something else.
  • Pet the Dog:
    • Fitting with his Anti-Villain status, Richard Schultz is shown to be a loving father when he’s not working.
    • During that same scene, Schultz is also able to have a fairly friendly conversation with Abbie Hoffman, furthering emphasizing his status as a Punch-Clock Villain. During this moment he does act like a bit of a Jerkass to Jerry Rubin, but you really can't blame the guy considering Rubin ditched any pleasantries and started lashing out at him.
    • Schultz objects to Bobby Seale being gagged and tied down alongside the defense attorneys and helps convince Judge Hoffman to declare his case as a mistrial.
    • Judge Hoffman has one at the end when he praises Tom Hayden as the only defendant who behaved decently throughout the trial, and makes it clear that he's being sincere when stating that he believes Hayden will undergo a Heel–Face Turn. While this statement is far from what Hayden wants to hear, Hoffman's attempt at kindness is genuine. In addition to that, Hoffman also notes that if Hayden follows his orders for his closing statement, it will be reflected positively in the defendants' sentences.
  • Police Brutality: 99% of the police footage in this film is of them beating and arresting protestors (usually without any cause), including one scene where they rip off their badges before assaulting them right outside a fancy diner. Fred Hampton is also killed by police offscreen when he was already helpless. "Executed", Seale rightly says.
  • Punch-Clock Villain: Richard Schultz is really only doing his job, and even then, he didn’t want to prosecute the defendants in the first place. When he sees Hoffman and Rubin outside the courtroom, they share a fairly friendly conversation.
  • Rage Breaking Point: Various characters have them at different points. Kunstler is the first to raise his voice to the judge in anger after multiple polite and professional attempts to object to the massive breaches of legal ethics Hoffman's committing. Dellinger's stands out, as he is the only one to resort to physical violence (after months of keeping his cool better than the others, he has a momentary loss of control that horrifies him, and leads to him immediately and sincerely apologising to the guard he punched).
  • "Rashomon"-Style: The same events are described in wildly different terms by Abbie Hoffman when he does stand-up, and the unsympathetic witnesses when they testify.
  • Red Scare: A variant of it comes up early in the film when Schultz, the prosecutor, calls the SDS, the Yippies, and the Black Panthers "the radical left, in different costumes." The use of that wording is clearly inspired by the term "radical left" becoming something of a scare word in the latter half of The New '10s and the early New Twenties, bringing to mind Bomb-Throwing Anarchists or communist revolutionaries.
  • Scary Black Man: The obvious reason why Seale is on trial with the white defendants: so the jury can lump the scary Black Panther Party with the white protestors.
  • Scary Minority Suspect: An In-Universe example. Bobby Seale has never met any of the other defendants, but he’s grouped up with them because having an intimidating Black Panther appear alongside them will help make the group look guilty.
  • Self-Deprecation: A common Sorkinism. An example is when the characters argue over Jack and Beanstalk.
    Weiner: It's almost hard to believe the seven of us weren't able to end a war.
  • Self-Plagiarism: Sorkin used the same egg joke in an episode of The West Wing.
  • Sidetracked by the Analogy: Done when Tom says "You're trading a cow for magic beans." Jerry points out that actually worked out pretty well for Jack.
  • Snark-to-Snark Combat: This film is full of them. Abbie Hoffman and Hayden with each other, Seale with Judge Hoffman, Kunstler with Hoffman and with his clients, Schultz with more or less everyone in the courtroom...
  • Stock Footage: The film uses quite a bit of it:
    • The film opens with footage of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy giving speeches, juxtaposed with a picture of his freshly-killed corpse and footage of his assassination, respectively.
    • The plot-kicking riot jumps back and forth between Sorkin's dramatization and NBC news footage.
    • Photo variant on the same idea; when Fred Hampton, a minor character who has provided support to Bobby Seale throughout the trial, is murdered by police officers, Sorkin depicts the event using the graphic photos of his death.
  • Suddenly SHOUTING!: William Kunstler manages to keep a calm tone of voice for most of the trial, even when he's clearly upset. However, after seeing Judge Hoffman screaming at Bobby Seale and yet again making false claims about his representation, Kunstler has had enough and roars back.
    Julius Hoffman: WILL YOU BE QUIET?! You have lawyers to speak for you!
    William Kunstler: NO HE DOESN'T!!!
  • Those Two Guys: Weiner and Froines, the two minor defendants, usually appear together and have a humorous banter.
  • Thought Crime: What Schultz's questioning of Abbie Hoffman amounts to:
    Robert Schultz: It's a "Yes or No" question: when you came to Chicago, were you hoping for a confrontation with the police?
    [Hoffman hesitates before answering]
    Robert Schultz: I'm concerned you have to think about it.
    Abbie Hoffman: Give me a moment, would you my friend? I've never been on trial for my thoughts before.
  • Tempting Fate: The film opens with the future defendants getting ready to go to Chicago. Dellinger brushes aside his wife and son's worries that he's going to get beaten up by police. Seale likewise dismisses his fellow Panther's worry by saying he's only going to be in the city for four hours.
  • They Call Me Mr Tibbs: From former Attorney General Ramsey Clark to the DOJ attorneys he asked to observe his interview with Kunstler.
    Clark: That’s what those two men came to tell me, that if John Mitchell wants to cut me in half, he can, and he will. So I wanted them in the room when I said, “When do you want me in court?”
    [...]
    DOJ Attorney: It is against the law for you to testify, Ramsey. It is as simple as that.
    Clark: It’s General Clark. And arrest me, or shut the fuck up.
  • Undercover Cop Reveal: At the trial, we see a lot of the people who were introduced to people like Tom Hayden and Abbie Hoffman were actually undercover cops and FBI agents. Lampshaded by Lee Weiner, who wonders if there were 10,000 policeman and only seven actual protesters in Chicago.
  • Villainous Breakdown: Though he had moments of Suddenly SHOUTING! even before the end of the film, Judge Hoffman flies into a desperate and hostile rage not only when the fallen soldiers' names are read and everyone's standing, but while his own demands for order while he futilely bangs his gavel also can’t carry over the cheers too.
  • We ARE Struggling Together: Honestly this is a central theme of the movie.
    • The defendants are from a number of different movements on the left. Hayden despises Hoffman and Rubin for their antics and how they overshadow and subsequently undermines their progressive goals. Hoffman counters that the establishment is fundamentally flawed and thus working within the system is pointless. Seale coldly confronts Hayden over his "co-defendants actions" by pointing out that his actions are partially a rebellion against his overbearing father "and can you see how that might be different from a noose on a tree."
    • The film also depicts the fractures in the right as well. The new Attorney General and Judge Hoffman just want them convicted and are willing to go to illegal lengths to get it. To them the law is secondary compared to eliminating perceived threats to the American way of life. Schultz is also a staunch Republican genuinely believes in the law and when given the case he starts poking holes and believes this is pointless. Until he is informed that "he is being given the ball here." i.e. do it or your career is over. See I Don't Pay You to Think above.
    • Kunstler is not pleased with Abbie Hoffman narrating the events of each trial day as a stand-up routine in front of a crowd.
  • What the Hell, Hero?: The defendants silently agree not to stand with the "all rise" after Hoffman orders Seale to be shackled and gagged. Hayden does anyway out of reflex and is seared by the looks of the others, along with the former Attorney General's Black housekeeper later on.
  • "Where Are They Now?" Epilogue: The film's audio fades out from Hayden's reading of the names to give brief sentence summaries of what happened after the trial in general and to the main defendants in their lives.
  • With Friends Like These...: Discussed by Abbie Hoffman, who, when telling the audience during his stand-up bit about how the Yippies and the SDS were penetrated by the police and FBI (see Undercover Cop Reveal above), says, "We'll call this the 'with friends like these' segment."
  • Your Approval Fills Me with Shame: Judge Hoffman commends Tom Hayden for being the only defendant who has behaved responsibly throughout the trial. Hayden is visibly mortified by Hoffman's perspective of him and promptly defies his orders during his final statement.
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