The Trial of the Chicago 7, currently on Netflix, is the latest film from playwright/producer/screenwriter Aaron Sorkin and the second film he’s directed after Molly’s Game. A Few Good Men, The American President, and Steve Jobs are other notable screenplays. Television work includes creating and producing The West Wing and The Newsroom to which most of us were addicted. Among a multitude of awards are 26 Emmys and an Academy Award for The Social Network. His most recent theater endeavor is the stage adaptation of Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird.
Host/Moderator Annette Insdorf is a Columbia University film professor, the author of books about Francois Truffaut, Krzysztof Kieslowski, Philip Kaufman, and Wojciech Has. For 30 years, the insightful expert has been offering Reel Pieces at her home away from home, the 92Y. According to ZOOM, there are 682 people tuned in to this conversation, many as avid as Insdorf, who tells us she subscribed to HBO only to watch The Newsroom.
“We’re here to focus on your evocative reproduction of the late 1960s trial following arrests at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. The film also has an eerie contemporary resonance. It begins and ends with the chant, ‘The whole world is watching!’ In 1968, you were seven years old. Did you know anything about the trial and if not, how did you prepare?” Insdorf inquires.
AS: “Stephen Spielberg invited me to his house. (He never does that.) I immediately said ‘yes’ to the film, then called my father and asked him who the 7 were. (Sorkin laughs.) There were a dozen or so good books and a 2100 page trial transcript. The most affecting input, however, was Tom Hayden, who was very much alive when we started this…”
Sorkin also reviewed such classics as Inherit the Wind and The Caine Mutiny. “There are courtroom drama rules. Jerry Rubin and Abby Hoffman felt it was their job every day to show disrespect for the trial. The actors wanted to play to that, but when it looks like one side doesn’t care if they lose, tension flags.”
“The trial was crazy. I couldn’t believe this had occurred in an American courtroom. Add to that, the eighth member, Bobby Seale, and what happened to him during the proceedings…” (Seale’s attorney was in the hospital. No other representation was appointed, nor was he allowed to defend himself. At some point, tired of his objections, Judge Hoffman had him taken out, beaten up and return to the courtroom in shackles.)
We watch an excerpt from the opening sequence. Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp) and Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) rouse a crowd of clean cut, pressed-shirt Students for a Democratic Society. Abby Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) and Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong) rail against the right before an audience of counter-culture Yippies.
David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch), the pacifist leader of Mobilization to End the War, reassures his family that nothing untoward will happen to him citing something akin to Marquis of Queensbury Rules. Black Panther, Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), who intended only to make a speech, felt they might have to “fuck the motherfuckers up.” In one deft sweep, Sorkin showed anti-war protestors lumped together as a conspiracy, were far from the same stripe.
AS: “The nation was going off the rails. Vietnam casualties were climbing. Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated. Mayor Daley kept adding more police, more National Guard. I think the MVP of the whole sequence is our composer Daniel Pemberton. I just said, ‘make it ironic.'”
Attendees note the crisp staccato of Sorkin’s writing and editing, the pitch and rhythm of his direction. Insdorf comments that her guest’s trademark style can be seen in Seale’s walk-and-talk tracking shot. “Yaha was in a particularly good mood. It was pointed out to me this was the only scene in the movie his character was a free man.” AS
AI: “Your film has 11 major characters. When you write, do you speak the lines out loud?”
AS: “I do. I’m very physical. I get up and act out. Once I found myself blocks from the office. Another time, I broke my nose. I don’t differentiate characters by the way they speak, however. It’s what they want, how they overcome obstacles, what happens.”
Insdorf asks whether her guest found himself identifying with a specific character. “Hayden. I thought he was right more than I thought Abby was right. That doesn’t mean I don’t empathize with both positions. I can put real blood in both people.” AS
The film meshes a courtroom drama, the evolution of a riot, and a personal story between Hayden and Hoffman. “They’re on the same side, but blocking each other,” Sorkin notes. “I got that part from Hayden.”
AI: “The trial lasted 150 days. How long was your first draft?”
AS: “I’m not known for being economical. Over 200 pages, but not my longest screenplay. I preach that you write the first draft until you get to fade out. Don’t go back to the beginning midway. Whether it’s a screenplay or an episode of TV, it’s not finished, it’s confiscated.” Sorkin thinks this would make a good musical. If Hamilton can… Attendee Hugh Jackman types in ‘Let me know when it’s finished, Aaron. I’m happy to audition.’
As real as it appears, Sorkin tells us court dialogue is not verbatim. Only Judge Hoffman’s (Frank Langella) horrifying pronouncements and everything that comes out of Seale’s mouth are actual. “I’ve been asked whether the script was changed to reflect events in the world. No. Suddenly there was demonization of protests again. ‘Bobby can you breathe,’ has always been in the script.” AS
The host asks about the preponderance of British actors. (In addition to those listed so far, Mark Rylance plays William Kunstler.) Sorkin responds that a great actor is a great actor. When Sacha Baron Cohen was approached by Spielberg early on, he laid claim to the role, even contacting Sorkin. “We were introduced to him as a clown, but he has this gift,” the director comments.
AI: “Michael Keaton as Ramsey Clark was a real surprise.” We watch a clip of Clark on the stand. “Why did you feel you had to include his confrontation with Judge Hoffman? (The answer is a spoiler.)
AS: “It took the film 14 years to get made because the riots were budget busters. When Spielberg decided the time was ripe, he said, ‘Now the riots are your problem.’ You always have to make sure it looks like what you would’ve done if you had a big budget. Tear gas smoke and night shoots helped create illusions.”
AI” “What have you learned about writing from directing?”
AS: “When you write something, see what happens if you cut the last line. It often works in your favor…I’m a work in progress, a little acorn that becomes the oak. Just give me a chance,” Aaron Sorkin grins. It’s infectious.
Elucidating, entertaining, and smart. Insdorf can always be counted on Sorkin is impressive, generous and charming.
Photos Courtesy of 92Y