If there is one film this season that seems to be increasingly relevant by the day it is Netflix’s The Trial of the Chicago 7, and that became abundantly clear after a conversation with writer-director Aaron Sorkin and some of his superb ensemble cast at Deadline’s Contenders Film awards-season event.
The astounding thing is the events of the film took place over a half century ago but couldn’t feel more relevant. It is about a group of protesters accused of crossing state lines to cause a riot at the 1968 Chicago Democratic National Convention, and the subsequent trial in which they are tried as insurgents and instigators. Sound familiar? History is clearly repeating itself –the recent invasion of the U.S. Capitol by right-wing extremists and Donald Trump supporters is just the most recent evidence of that — but it is uncanny how urgently prescient this movie is, a film Sorkin says has taken 14 years to get to the screen after Steven Spielberg put it into motion and brought Sorkin in to do the screenplay. Sorkin would later end up directing it as well, and feels the timing is more important than ever.
“There are a lot of reasons it took so long, and now I am glad it did. The film has been on a 14-year collision course with events,” he says on the panel. “We thought it was plenty relevant when we were making it. Donald Trump was holding (raucous) rallies… but we never imagined just how relevant it would become in the next few months when in May George Floyd was killed…and there were protests in many cities all over America, and those protesters were again met with tear gas and nightsticks.”
Sorkin breaks the film basically into three parts: a courtroom drama, the evolution of a riot, and the conflict between Tom Hayden and Abbie Hoffman as both are among those who stand trial during the Nixon administration. He says 23 drafts later, he finally had his movie.
For Eddie Redmayne, who plays Hayden, it was all on the page. “Hayden had an extraordinary facility with speech, but with a quiet integrity that drew people toward him,” the actor said of the leader of the protests. Sacha Baron Cohen said he has wanted to play Hoffman since his college days and even called Spielberg to arrange an audition all those years ago. Yahya Abdul-Mateen II had a personal connection to his role as Black Panther Bobby Seale since both are from Oakland and he even heard him speak once.
And Jeremy Strong , who plays Jerry Rubin, Hoffman’s cohort, pointed out that in addition to several books Rubin wrote there was a particular appearance he made on the Phil Donahue talk show that really helped him crack the code of playing him and finding “the wildness and anarchic spirit of this merry prankster.”
In light of our currently fragile and changing world, Sorkin summed up the importance of this film. “A big theme is that there has never been important social change without being preceded by protests. All eight of the Chicago 7 deserve our respect,“ he said.
So too do Spielberg and Sorkin for realizing this is a cautionary story of great value for right now.
Check out the panel video above.