Appraised solely for its political bona fides, The Trial of the Catonsville Nine is impeccable, conveying activist priest Father Daniel Berrigan’s poetic record of his involvement with the illegal destruction of Vietnam-era draft records. Every frame of the picture exudes righteous indignation, and the movie was released at a moment when every voice raised against an unjust war mattered. Seen today, it’s a bit of a slog even though it contains fine work by several terrific actors, especially the great Ed Flanders, who stars as Berrigan. The problem with The Trial of the Catonsville Nine today is that it unfolds as a scattershot expression of rage against the machine—specifically, the American military-industrial complex. Amid glorious speeches are heavy-handed inserts depicting battlefield atrocities and campus protests. It’s all meaningful, but it’s also monotonous and repetitive.
In 1968, Berrigan and eight other activists snatched hundreds of draft records from an office in Maryland, dragged them to a parking lot, and immolated the records using homemade napalm. The activists remained in place awaiting arrest, hoping their ensuing trial would help draw attention to the antiwar movement. The trial resulted in convictions for all involved, though Berrigan fled, remaining a fugitive until 1970, at which point he was incarcerated for two years. The film opens with a brief dramatization of the crime, then shifts to a stylized courtroom set. Although Berrrigan’s original play was written in verse, the movie employs an alternate script by Saul Levitt, which transposes Berrigan’s text into dramatic scenes. In its best moments, the film has the tension of a proper courtroom drama, alternating heated ethical debates with brazen procedural maneuvers. In its driest moments, the movie becomes a hectoring leftist sermon that portrays the U.S. government as a corrupt empire.
What redeems the viewing experience, beyond the beauty and passion of Berrigan’s language, is the acting. Flanders conveyed compassion and vulnerability with special grace, so he’s perfect in the leading role. Richard Jordan and Donald Moffat, also deeply humanistic actors, excel as two of Berrigan’s co-conspirators, and William Schallert displays unexpected colors as the trial’s sympathetic judge—what a pleasure to see him in a part this dimensional. It’s also worth noting the behind-the-camera participation of two important figures. Actor Gregory Peck, who does not appear in the film, financed and produced The Trial of the Catonsville Nine, while cinematographer Haskell Wexler, always eager to help an underdog cause, shot the picture.
The Trial of the Catonsville Nine: FUNKY