For the Record
Writer-director Aaron Sorkin and the cast of The Trial of the Chicago 7 take a stand.
Writer-director Aaron Sorkin’s gripping new historical drama The Trial of the Chicago 7 zooms in on the violence that erupted around the Democratic National Convention in August 1968, when anti-Vietnam War demonstrations led to clashes between protesters and the authorities. The story is set in the past, but there’s no question that the film — which traces both the protests and the subsequent court proceedings against the leaders of the movement — bristles with immediacy in our present political moment.“I think it’s going to be even more timely, as we are going to be faced with the question: What do we as individuals do to protect democracy when it’s being ripped away from us?” says Sacha Baron Cohen, who plays left-wing agitator Abbie Hoffman. “I do fear that protests may be the only option that’s available post-election if the mail-in votes are prevented from being counted fully. I fear that the American people will have this choice that the Chicago Seven had: Do we stand by or do we stand up?”
Hoffman, the co-founder of the Youth International Party (Yippies), was one of the men charged by the federal government with conspiracy to incite a riot, among other crimes. Indicted along with him were: Jerry Rubin (played by Jeremy Strong), the other Yippie co-founder; Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) and Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp), leaders of the Students for a Democratic Society; David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch), chairman of the Mobilization to End the War in Vietnam; and fellow organizers John Froines (Danny Flaherty) and Lee Weiner (Noah Robbins). Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), co-founder of the Black Panther Party, was also a defendant, though his case was ultimately declared a mistrial.In scripting the film, Sorkin sought to capture the dynamic between the charismatic Hoffman and the more soft-spoken Hayden, whose wildly divergent styles often brought them into conflict. “The source of the tension between Abbie and Jerry on one side and Tom on the other is very much reflected in the intramural tension right now between the left and the further left,” says Sorkin. “There are people who say change has to be incremental, we have to win elections, now’s not the time to talk about defunding the police. There are others saying we’re tired of incremental progress, it’s time to start breaking things.”Queue’s Krista Smith recently spoke to Sorkin, Redmayne, Baron Cohen, and Strong about what it was like to work with this cast of heavy hitters — which also includes Mark Rylance, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Frank Langella — on The Trial of the Chicago 7.
Krista Smith: Aaron, why did you have to make this movie now?
Aaron Sorkin (Writer-director): It has been in the works since 2006. It was Steven Spielberg who said that he wanted to make a movie about the riots in Chicago in 1968 and the crazy conspiracy trial that followed. I said, “I’m in. I want to write that movie.” I then left his house, called my father and asked him if he knew anything about riots that happened in Chicago in 1968 or a crazy conspiracy trial that followed. I didn’t know what Steven was talking about. I was saying yes to Steven, and I heard the word “trial” in there and I was on board for that.
A script from Aaron, it’s like a holy grail.”
For the actors, what goes through your mind when an Aaron Sorkin script drops in your lap?
Eddie Redmayne (Tom Hayden): People quite often ask you who you want to work with or what parts you want to play. There was always one person on the bucket list for me — which sounds incredibly sycophantic — and that was Aaron, because I, like much of the world, was a West Wing fanatic.
Sacha, you knew a lot about Abbie Hoffman going into this. What was the most important thing for the audience to know about him?
Baron Cohen: I did my undergraduate thesis on Jewish activists in the Black civil rights movement during the period of ’60 to ’67 — so a year before the events in Chicago. Abbie was one of these Jewish left-wing students who ventured down South to ensure that people of color had the right to vote.
Jerry Rubin had a lot of comedy to him, but at the same time, he was very serious.
Strong: Jerry was someone who had gone in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee dressed as Santa Claus and dressed as an American Revolutionary soldier. Abbie and Jerry and the Yippies, they were these merry pranksters, and they used a sense of theater to express their dissent. At the same time, I think that Jerry Rubin would certainly be out on the streets in Minneapolis and in Atlanta and in Kenosha and in Portland and in Seattle. These were people who were incredibly courageous and would put themselves on the line for their convictions. So it was very liberating to play the character because of how colorful he is, but the fire underneath that is really the thing. The movie is really a celebration of protests and a celebration of dissent and a celebration of freedom when pitted against the forces of oppression, where we find ourselves again today.
One of the greatest elements of this film for me was the proper old-school ensemble sense of the movie.”
How did you find the experience of working in the courtroom set, day after day, shooting those scenes?
Redmayne: I thought it was heaven, I must say. My character actually had very little to say during the courtroom, and because Aaron had cast the film to the hilt, it was a daily master class as you watched Frank Langella, Rylance, or Jeremy, Sacha, Yahya. You got to see everyone’s processes. One of the greatest elements of this film for me was the proper old-school ensemble sense of the movie.
At one point, Bobby Seale, brilliantly played by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, is brought into the courtroom bound and gagged. What was it like to witness that moment, knowing that actually happened?
Strong: I was shocked by it. I felt sickened by it. It felt like something in me broke when I saw what this judge was capable of.
Watch The Trial of the Chicago 7
on Netflix Now.