Trial of the Chicago 7: Aaron Sorkin Talks about his New, Urgent Movie

The Trial of the Chicago 7, a legal drama scripted and directed by the highly acclaimed award-winning writer Aaron Sorkin (The West WingA Few Good MenThe Social Network), chronicles the tragic events surrounding a group of anti-Vietnam War protesters in the late 1960s.  Charged with conspiracy in 1969, they were accused of crossing state lines with the intention of inciting riots at the 1968  Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Jim meal/BEI/Shutterstock (5528314ai) Aaron Sorkin


The film boasts a large impressive ensemble that includes Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as Bobby Seale, Sacha Baron Cohen as Abbie Hoffman, Daniel Flaherty as John Froines, Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Richard Schultz, Michael Keaton as Ramsey Clark, Frank Langella as Julius Hoffman, John Carroll Lynch as David Dellinger, Eddie Redmayne as Tom Hayden, Noah Robbins Lee Weiner, Mark Rylance as William Kunstler, Alex Sharp as Rennie Davis, and Jeremy Strong Jerry Rubin.
Spielberg and Me
The movie has been in the works for for well over a decade, as Sorkin recalls: “It began in 2006, when Steven Spielberg asked me to come to his house on a Saturday morning. He said, ‘I really want to make a movie about those terrible riots in Chicago in 1968 at the convention, and then the crazy conspiracy trial that followed.’ I said, ‘that sounds great. I’m in.’ I got in my car on the way home and I immediately called my father and said, ‘Dad, do you know anything about riots that happened in 1968 and a crazy conspiracy trial that followed? I just said yes to Spielberg.’ I had a vague sense that there was civil unrest at the convention in 1968. But frankly, I had never heard of this trial. I kind of vaguely knew that Abbie Hoffman was a countercultural figure. What I knew of Tom Hayden was that he was once married to the actress Jane Fonda, and I knew that Bobby Seale was the head of the Black Panthers. But I didn’t know if that was good or bad. So I started my research from scratch.”
He continues: “The day after I turned in the second draft, the Writers Guild went on strike and nobody was allowed to talk to each other for months. And when we came back, the schedule meant that we had to do other things. Then Paul Greengrass and Ben Stiller were mentioned as possible directors.  After doing several drafts as a screenplay and feeling like, ‘the problem here is that because of the riots, this movie is just going to cost more than anyone is going to want to spend on this movie.’ so I said, ‘let me try writing it as a play,’ and the rest is history.”
There was an element of suspense and surprise in the writing process: “That first meeting, I remember Steven saying, ‘I think it’s important that we try to get this film out before the elections.’ He was talking about the 2008 elections, when Barack Obama ran for and then won the presidency, which was not a sure thing.  We would say that again before the 2012 and 2016 elections, and it’s finally happening now.” Years later, Sorkin still holds that “If it didn’t say, ‘This is the true story,’ you would boo the screen because you’d just left reality. But to me, the most shocking thing is the tragic ending, the death, which I cannot talk about it here, because it’s a real spoiler for viewers not familiar with the case.”
Back then, Spielberg intended to cast the real-life figures with unknowns, for purposes of authenticity as well as for his wish to keep the budget down on what was arguably a tough, and not an obviously commercial, material.  Later on, Spielberg dropped out as a director due to scheduling conflicts, but he has remained as a producer. Sorkin is grateful for the trust that Spielberg showed in him: “I directed my first movie, ‘Molly’s Game,’ and Spielberg was sufficiently pleased with it that he said, ‘You should direct Chicago 7.’ That happened at the same time that Donald Trump was holding huge rallies and getting nostalgic about how in the old days they used to take that guy out of here on a stretcher, how they used to beat the crap out of him, punch him in the face, talking about protesters that way. Trump started telling people to go back where they came from.”
Paramount studio had originally scheduled the film for limited theatrical release on September 25, 2020.  In June of this year, however, plans changed due to the closure of movie theaters and the pandemic restrictions, and Netflix acquired it for about $56 million.  The movie is now set for limited theatrical release in early October, and digitally on October 16, during the height of the debates for the upcoming elections, November 3.
Sorkin, known for his diverse body of work for TV, theater, and film, says that “Whenever I get an idea for something, the first thing I do is think, ‘Can this be a play?’ And there was a time when I thought it might be a play, because there are parts of the movie which would work well as a play, like those opening entrances of the characters, and it’s also a courtroom drama, which is natural for the stage. But in the end, I wanted to show the riots realistically, and I knw that that can only be done as a movie.”
That said, he is quick to clarify that “My movie is not focused on the riots, In fact, I don’t show the riots until almost an hour into the movie.  Essentially, I’m interested in telling three stories at once. There’s the courtroom drama, there’s the more personal story between Abbie Mann and Tom Hayden, and then the third tale is the evolution of the riot, and the big riot itself on the final night of the convention.”  He says that his main concern has always been, “How did an event devolve from what was supposed to be a peaceful protest into a very bloody clash that involved the city police, the state police, the National Guard?”
The task was at times daunting, he admits: “I was pretty scared of it, since I had only directed one movie before this, and this movie has over eleven people in it, plus it was going to have tear gas and riots. But, fortunately, I got a lot of professional help, from movie experts as well as the Chicago Police Department.”
Walter Cronkite: Prophet of The Truth
Legendary anchorman Walter Cronkite features prominently in the text, beginning with his serious proclamation: “A democratic convention is about to begin in a police state.”  When Sorkin saw that original clip, he says, “I suddenly knew that the film was going to have a prologue, and that that clip was going to be the end of it. I wanted to show a prologue, something that moved very fast, that didn’t just introduce our characters, but also showed a whole country coming off the rails in 1968, with the escalation of the draft, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy. The temperature got so hot by the time they got to the convention, that the Cronkite clip was like a special gift to me.”
He elaborates: “Younger people don’t realize the immense stature and gravity of Walter Cronkite as a news anchor–and beyond. When Cronkite said something, that was understood to be ‘The Truth.’  Cronkite wasn’t giving in to hyperbole, he was always the stoic, consummate newsman. That’s why it was memorable when he rubbed a tear away when he was the first to announce that John F. Kennedy had been shot, back in 1963. For Cronkite to say a democratic convention is about to begin in a police state, there just doesn’t seem to be any other way to say it. That was a huge deal; it wasn’t just a guy trying to get better ratings for his network, or drawing attention to himself by pumping something up.”
Sorkin is using President Lyndon B. Johnson (LBG) and Cronkite as two sort of avuncular figures, the former making himself irrelevant, while the latter making himself more relevant: “I decided that the televised announcement from LBJ, that he was escalating troop levels in Vietnam, and so therefore had to up the monthly draft call. I decided, all right, let that be the first domino in this prologue, and let everything escalate from there. And then we end with Cronkite, followed by skipping over what happened, and going right to John Mitchell (played by William Hurt) months after the convention. We end right at the moment that the match is about to hit the fuse, and a new President has been elected–Richard Nixon–and we do go behind the scenes to see what the real impetus was for the justice department to bring charges in the first place.”
Sorkin says he likes deploying the narrative strategy of throwing the audience into the middle of things: “I like, if I can, to parachute the audience into something that’s already going 90 miles an hour, and that feeling of having them to sit forward and catch up to it. It’s exhilarating for me as a writer and it should be exhilarating for the audience. I’ve got a sweet tooth for any kind of courtroom drama. It just feels good being locked within those four walls, where the rules are clearly laid out, with both the intentions and obstacles involved in the process.”
I Love Courtroom Dramas
In most of his work, Sorkin favors the format of courtroom dramas, because “they’re not just about the procedures of the pursuit of justice, they’re also about egos; individuals whose prides are hurt and reputations damaged.”  He explains: “In most courtroom dramas and in courtrooms, the motive of the prosecution is an element in the process. In the Chicago 7, there’s even a shouting match between Mark Rylance, who plays William Kunstler, the lead defense lawyer, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who plays the lead prosecutor. When there’s an objection, Kunstler questions the motive of the prosecution and Gordon-Levitt shouts back, ‘The motive of the prosecution is not an issue in a courtroom,’ to which Kunstler coolly replies, ‘Not any courtroom I’ve ever been in, but this one.’ We all know the truth, that is many courtrooms, the motive of the prosecution is an element.”
As for the film’s climax, Sorkin reasons: “Right before the sentencing of Tom Hayden, we hear the judge’s admonition, ‘If you behave the way I want you to behave, I’ll take that into consideration when sentencing you.’ And that was just sort of a bridge too far for Hayden, and he does what he does.”
“The third night of the Republican National Convention (RNC) and the two nights that came before, when it seems to be about all the lawlessness from these bad people with long hair, and no ambition, and no jobs, and no respect for authority or for their parents, and not willing to dirty their hands with the war. But then we learn when Ramsey Clark is on the stand, that it is something deeper and even darker than that. Nixon inherited an unpopular war and these guys are making it more unpopular every day, sort of ‘can we please decapitate this antiwar movement, get rid of Bobby Seale at the same time?’ That will create the America that we long for, but one that never existed.
Sorkin recalls that “By a grim coincidence of scheduling, we shot a particular scene on the 50th anniversary of a particular event. For whatever reason, that’s the day I felt the reality of it, and this was before Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks, and George Floyd. The similarities between what goes on in this film about 1968 and what goes on right now today, are chilling, to say the least. Mind you, the movie I was making was relevant when we were making it, we didn’t need it to get more relevant, but it did become more relevant by the day. Someone just asked me, ‘Did you change the script to mirror the current events?’ And I retorted back right away, ‘Of course, I didn’t, I didn’t have to!’ It’s the world that changed to mirror the script.”
Sorkin elaborates: “That’s a question that was being asked 50 years ago, and we’re still asking it now and will probably be asking it when this movie opens.  And I hope we will. I hope it will be terribly irritating for the people watching this. I know for sure that if, what happened in 1970 to Fred Hampton (played  Kelvin Harrison Jr.), deputy chair of the Black Panther Party (BPP) who was shot and killed, happened today–that exact same thing happens a lot–there would be all kinds of information about what a bad guy he is. They would just post his resume, and all they have to do is to say, “He’s a Black Panther, or he’s the head of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panthers,” you don’t have to say much more other than that. He’s a terrorist, and no one would know who Fred was.”
“There’s so much tumult in our movie, which is about a turbulent time in our country where people are trying to figure out who they were and where they stood. Our movie is about a bunch of young men who knew exactly who they were, and where they stood. By talking to younger people about the movie and trying to describe who Hayden and Hoffman and Dave Dellinger, and Bobby Seale was, there doesn’t seem to be anyone contemporary who’s analogous to them. That’s not to say that there are not organizers and activists on the streets right now.  But those guys and Abbie in particular, who was doing standup,  they were pop stars, cultural icons.”
The movie could not have been more relevant to today’s climate of ideas and events: “There’s a black-and-white photo from outside the courthouse, where there are both Chicago 7 supporters and Chicago 7 haters. In a way, this is 1969 now: ‘America, love it or leave it.’ ‘What about white civil rights?” ‘Lock them up.’  We all just thought, ‘this is relevant, this isn’t a history lesson, this is going on right now.’ Perhaps Spielberg put it best when he stated: ‘Reality just keeps more and more mirroring the events of the movie.'”