Richard Schultz: “Sir, there are people who will see this as the Justice Department restraining free speech, and there were people who see these men as martyrs.”
One of the best movies of 2020 hands down is Aaron Sorkin’s head-spinningly timely and dizzyingly well-put together “The Trial of the Chicago 7.” I have seen it a couple of times. The first time you see it you’re caught up – and rightly so – in the subject matter and the fact that its content feels like it could be unfolding right now. Well, if you think about the Black Lives Matter movement marches and protests against police brutality this past summer, it actually has. But it merits repeated viewings to appreciate the craft behind it – starting with paying close attention to one of the best scripts. We’ve always known of Sorkin’s protean mastery of words and rhythm. And his musicality and cadence is just thrilling and rare to find in current cinema. This might be his best one, and mind you this is the writer who’s given us “The Social Network.” But Sorkin – who arrived to this film as a terrific director having helmed the acclaimed “Molly’s Game” (2017) – is now on the fast track to becoming an auteur. And it’s his control of the visuals to tell his story – that rise up to the level of his screenplay – that makes it a reason to rejoice for any cinephile.
In 1969, eight activists – Tom Hayden and Rennie Davis of the Students for a Democratic Society, counter-culture figures Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, MOBE (National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam) organizers David Dellinger, John Froines, and Lee Weiner, and Black Panther Party Chairman Bobby Seale – were put on a crazy conspiracy trial for colluding to incite a riot outside the Democratic convention. The newly elected Nixon administration aimed to put this group away in jail for years. Presiding over the circus – I mean trial – was biased judge Julius Jennings Hoffman — and celebrated civil rights attorney William Kunstler defended the group of anti-war activists. Sorkin electrifyingly combines three narratives at once – the courtroom drama of the trial itself; flashbacks to the way that a peaceful demonstration got out of hand and became violent; and the struggle between Hayden and Hoffman, who had different ideological approaches, but similar goals. The in-house tension between the more moderate and more progressive wings of the current Democratic Party echo the abrasion between Tom and Abbie.
Done in collaboration with Academy Award-nominated Editor Alan Baumgarten (“American Hustle,” “Molly’s Game”), the opening scene is remarkable. In a swiftly moving montage mixing in archival footage, it sets up the historical context of the turbulent times in the late 60s. It also introduces the activists as they prepare to attend the convention. Sorkin’s writing and editing have characters – and scenes – end each other’s sentences, so all these disparate events build an energy as well as a unifying power. Once the trial begins Baumgarten edits flashbacks to the different scenes discussed in court – including the massive sequence of the riots in which archival footage is also interspersed. They also used footage from Haskell Wexler’s “Medium Cool” – a cinema verité style drama that takes place in Chicago in the Summer of 1968. Interestingly, Sorkin chooses not to portray the protesters as completely innocent. It’s left ambiguous who threw what – and when.
Director of Photography Phedon Papamichael creates a stark contrast between the courtroom scenes and the riot sequences. The latter are shot with a gauzy quality that makes it look surreal and dream-like. The camera work in the trial sections emphasize the grandness of the space – the weight of government and history weighing down on the characters. I love how symbolic the intrinsic bulk of the wood in the furniture feels.
The ensemble is phenomenal. Sacha Baron Cohen is the standout as Hoffman – whose frivolity and irreverence in the proceedings mask deeper concerns about our democracy.
Sorkin’s writing is so admirable. In the past he’s shown how theatrical and dexterous he can be when he has characters arguing in close quarters – whether they’re in the West Wing or Harvard. This time around he takes it all on a grander scale, and it sizzles.
Judge Julius Hoffman: “I’d like to clarify something for the jurors. There are two Hoffmans in this courtroom. The defendant Abbie Hoffman, and myself, Judge Julius Hoffman.”
Richard Schultz: “Thank you, sir.”
Judge Julius Hoffman: “I didn’t want there to be confusion on the matter.”
Abbie Hoffman: “Man, I don’t think there’s much chance they’re going to mix us up.”
Available to stream on Netflix.
Written by Aaron Sorkin
Directed by Aaron Sorkin
Starring Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Sacha Baron Cohen, Daniel Flaherty, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Michael Keaton, Frank Langella, John Carroll Lynch, Eddie Redmayne, Noah Robbins, Mark Rylance, Alex Sharp and Jeremy Strong
Writer and Director Aaron Sorkin on Bringing “The Trial of the Chicago 7” to the Screen
For 14 years, Aaron Sorkin has labored to tell the story of a sensational slice of 20th-century history: the trial of seven famed antiwar activists charged with inciting a riot at the 1968 Democratic National Convention (an eighth was removed from the case). But like his subjects, the writer-director wasn’t going to let anything — not even a global pandemic — stop him from getting his message out ahead of a pivotal presidential election. “We would have hung a sheet in the parking lot and projected it against that,” Sorkin says with a laugh of his all-too-timely film. Thankfully, amid an increasingly murky time for theatrical releases, Netflix came to the rescue… “I was asked over to [producer] Steven Spielberg’s house on a Saturday morning, and he said that he really wanted to make a movie about the 1968 riots in Chicago and the crazy conspiracy trial that followed. And I said, “Sure, count me in.” As soon as I got in my car, I called my father and said, “Dad, do you know anything about these riots in 1968 or a crazy conspiracy trial that followed?” I had no idea what Steven was talking about, I just said yes to working with him. I remember Steven saying, “I really think it’s important that this film come out before the election.” The election he was talking about was 2008. I wrote two drafts and the day after I turned in the second draft, the WGA went on strike. So nobody could really meet for a couple of months and by the time we got back, we all had things on our schedule, so we had to keep pushing Chicago 7. There was a time when Paul Greengrass was directing it, there was a time when Ben Stiller was directing it. About two years ago, I had directed my first movie, ‘Molly’s Game,’ and it sufficiently pleased Steven, so he thought I should direct and that the time to make ‘Chicago 7’ was now.
At the beginning, it was a courtroom drama, and I love courtroom dramas. And it was a piece of history that I thought should be told in a feature film format. But then as time went on, it’s funny, I’ve been asked, did the script change at all to mirror the times? And no, it didn’t; the times changed to mirror the script. When we started shooting, I thought it was relevant, and we didn’t need it to get more relevant, but it did. The president was nostalgically talking to crowds about the good ol’ days when we carry them out on a stretcher, punch them in the face, and cops wouldn’t be so polite. He was talking about 1968. Then, protests got demonized as being un-American, Marxist, communist — all things they called the Chicago 7. There’s a black-and-white photograph I have of protesters and counterprotesters in front of the courthouse and there’s three signs in the photograph: “America, love it or leave it,” “What about white civil rights,” and “Lock ’em up.” Watching recent coverage of protesters clashing with police, all you had to do was degrade the color a bit and it would look exactly like the footage from 1968. (ew.com)
Sorkin on the Making of “The Trial of the Chicago 7”
“Most of the research involved reading all of the books that have been written about the riots and about the trial, including the transcript of the trial. I did get to spend time with Tom Hayden, who died in 2016, and that’s how the story suddenly got organized in my head, that I would be telling three stories at once: the courtroom drama; the evolution of the riot, how does it go from being a peaceful protest to a violent, bloody clash with the police and National Guard; and the more personal and emotional story of Tom [played by Redmayne] and Abbie Hoffman [Cohen], which I never would have got from a book or trial transcript. It was two guys who rubbed each other the wrong way, to say the least, but who came to respect each other by the end of the trial…”
“…I was nervous about everything going into the movie; I had never done anything like staging the riot scenes. But I was also nervous about having four weeks in the courtroom of, as you said, the entire cast, plus a hundred extras, plus the crew. And most of these actors are used to starring in their own movies, they’re not used to “For the next three days, you don’t have any lines in these scenes. It’s coverage, and the coverage is important.” They couldn’t have been better — completely professional, completely devoted to the movie, absolutely there for the other actors if it was somebody else’s big day. It was just a great group of people to work with…there are some Oscar winners who are household names, and there are some people like Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, who is about to be a household name, and Jeremy Strong is well on his way. But it was the best actor for the role, and once the cast was put together I felt like every morning I was getting thrown the keys to a Formula One race car scenes. It’s coverage, and the coverage is important.” They couldn’t have been better — completely professional, completely devoted to the movie, absolutely there for the other actors if it was somebody else’s big day. It was just a great group of people to work with…(ew.com)
The History Behind “The Trial of the Chicago 7”
The road to the trial began the previous summer, when more than 10,000 antiwar demonstrators flocked to Chicago for five days during the 1968 Democratic National Convention. The country was in turmoil, reeling from the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Senator Robert Kennedy and the worsening Vietnam War. President Lyndon Johnson, beleaguered and defeated by the war, had made the unprecedented decision not to seek a second term; after Kennedy’s death, Vice President Hubert Humphrey stood as the heir to the presidential nomination. But the Democratic Party was as divided as the rest of the nation: The antiwar contingent opposed Humphrey, while Minnesota Senator Eugene McCarthy appealed to students and activists on the left. “Myself and others in [the antiwar group Students for a Democratic Society] (SDS)] went to Chicago to convince the kids in their teens and early 20s who had been campaigning for McCarthy to give up their illusions about getting change within the system,” says Michael Kazin, a history professor at Georgetown University who is currently writing a history of the Democratic party. “At the time, we were very cynical about the Democrats. We didn’t think there was any chance that McCarthy would be nominated. We wanted to give up the illusion of change through the existing electoral system.” Organizers were planning a non-violent demonstration. But when thousands, many of them college students, arrived in Chicago, they were met by the forces of Democratic Mayor Richard Daley and his law-and-order machine—a tear-gas spraying, baton-wielding army of 12,000 Chicago police officers, 5,600 members of the Illinois National Guard and 5,000 U.S. Army soldiers. The protests turned to bloodshed.
At the trial 12 months later, the eight defendants remained united in their opposition to the war in Vietnam, but they were far from a homogenous coalition. They represented different factions of “the movement” and had distinctly different styles, strategies and political agendas. Abbie Hoffman (played by Sacha Baron Cohen) and Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong) were the counterculture activists of the Youth International Party (yippies), who brought a tie-dye, merry-prankster sensibility to their anti-authoritarianism. Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) and Davis (Alex Sharp), founders of SDS, lead a campus coalition of 150 organizations bent on changing the system and ending the war. David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch)—literally a Boy Scout leader—was a pacifist and organizer for the Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam (MOBE), which had been formed the previous year to plan large anti-war demonstrations. Professors John Froines and Lee Weiner (Danny Flaherty and Noah Robbins), who were only peripherally involved in planning the Chicago demonstrations (sitting at the defense table, one of them likens their presence to the Academy Awards. “It’s an honor just to be nominated.”) though they were thought to have been targeted as a warning to other academics who might engage in anti-war activities. Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) was head of the Chicago Panthers, which leaned towards more militant methods. The two lawyers representing the defendants, William Kunstler (Mark Rylance) and Leonard Weinglass (Ben Shenkman), were renowned civil rights attorneys. (smithsonianmag.com)
About Writer and Director Aaron Sorkin
Sorkin grew up in suburban New York City and, as a child, discovered an affinity for the theatre. After studying the subject at Syracuse University (B.F.A., 1983), he attempted to make a living as a stage actor in New York City. Having long harboured a fascination with dialogue, Sorkin eventually turned to dramatic writing. His first two scripts received little attention, but the third, “A Few Good Men” (1989), was a major success on Broadway, running for more than a year. Inspired by a case related to Sorkin by his sister, a military attorney, the play centres on the court-martial of two marines accused of having killed a fellow serviceman. Sorkin was praised for his dramatic instincts and his command of the play’s milieu—despite having no personal military or legal experience. Even before “A Few Good Men” was staged, Sorkin sold its film rights, and he later adapted the script into an acclaimed 1992 movie starring Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson. The film led to further opportunities in Hollywood, and Sorkin subsequently abandoned his theatrical career. (Another play, the satirical “Making Movies,” had been performed Off-Broadway in 1990.) Sorkin co-wrote the screenplay for the thriller “Malice” (1993) before penning the political romance “The American President” (1995), about the relationship between a widowed U.S. president (played by Michael Douglas) and a lobbyist (Annette Bening). About this time Sorkin also made uncredited contributions to several other film scripts. While working on “The American President,” Sorkin developed an interest in sports television, which he parlayed into the TV series “Sports Night” (1998–2000)…Buoyed by the possibilities that television offered, however, Sorkin revisited material he had cut from “The American President” and created “The West Wing” (1999–2006), a drama that chronicled the daily workings of the White House through a fictional president and his passionately loyal staff. The show was an instant hit, winning nine Emmy Awards in its first season alone, and further contributed to Sorkin’s reputation as a purveyor of smart, sophisticated entertainment. After writing and producing nearly every episode of the first four seasons of “The West Wing,” Sorkin left the show in 2003.
Sorkin’s next television project was “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip” (2006–07), which depicted the offscreen goings-on of a TV sketch-comedy program. However, the show survived only one season. Sorkin then returned to his theatrical roots with the Broadway production “The Farnsworth Invention” (2007), about the historical emergence of television, and he wrote the screenplay for the film “Charlie Wilson’s War” (2007), based on the true story of a U.S. congressman who became involved in the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. For the film “The Social Network” (2010), Sorkin adapted writer Ben Mezrich’s account of the origins of Facebook and the legal battles faced by its founder, Mark Zuckerberg. Sorkin’s lively dialogue and classical storytelling were seen as instrumental to the movie’s success, and he won an Academy Award for best adapted screenplay. He later co-wrote (with Steven Zaillian) the Oscar-nominated screenplay for the baseball drama “Moneyball” (2011); an adaptation of a book by Michael Lewis, the film told the true-life story of how Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane assembled a winning team on a small budget through the use of statistics. Sorkin revisited television as both a medium and a subject with “The Newsroom” (2012–14), an HBO series about a cable news channel. Using Walter Isaacson’s biography of Apple cofounder Steve Jobs, Sorkin then wrote the screenplay for an eponymously named film (2015) directed by Danny Boyle and starring Michael Fassbender as Jobs. Sorkin made his directorial debut with “Molly’s Game” (2017), which he adapted from a memoir by Molly Bloom, who became famous when she was arrested for her role in an illegal high-stakes gambling ring favoured by Hollywood celebrities. He earned an Academy Award nomination for best adapted screenplay. In 2018 Sorkin’s adaptation of Harper Lee’s classic “To Kill a Mockingbird” (1960) premiered on Broadway, with Jeff Daniels portraying the lead, Atticus Finch. In 2020 Sorkin returned to the big screen with “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” which he wrote and directed. Based on true events, the drama centres on a group of political activists who were tried for their antiwar activities during the 1968 Democratic National Convention. (britannica.com)