Aaron Sorkin litigates ‘the demonization of dissent’ with Netflix’s ‘The Trial of the Chicago 7’

You can handle this truth: Aaron Sorkin has a knack for courtroom drama.

The Oscar-winning screenwriter gave us one of cinema’s all-time trial scenes in 1992’s “A Few Good Men,” adapted “To Kill a Mockingbird” for the Broadway stage in 2018 and even included a court moment in his 2017 directorial debut “Molly’s Game.”

Sorkin wages another legal battle in Neflix’s “The Trial of the Chicago 7” (streaming Oct. 16), which he wrote and directed. A peaceful protest at the 1968 Democratic National Convention led by organizers including Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen), Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong), Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) and Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) escalates into a bloody clash with police and the National Guard. Afterward, the men were charged with conspiracy to incite a riot in an infamous trial in American history.

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Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (from left), Ben Shenkman, Mark Rylance, Eddie Redmayne and Alex Sharp star in Aaron Sorkin's drama "The Trial of the Chicago 7," about organizers charged with inciting a riot after a 1968 protest at the Democratic National Convention.

“Everything was geared toward the jury’s emotion,” Sorkin said in a conversation Monday at the virtual Toronto International Film Festival with critic and scholar Elvis Mitchell. “The Black guy’s scary. Those long-haired guys are crazy. I’m scared of them. These two over here, they’re fine. They didn’t seem to do much. Well, we’ll let them go. 

“It’s cast by the government like a great caper movie,” the filmmaker added. “You couldn’t have asked for a better posse to put together for that kind of thing. It’s as if the government foresaw that there would a movie about this one day and they wanted it to be good.”

The prologue was one of the most important aspects for Sorkin of “Chicago 7,” as it introduces each of the characters in what reminds him almost of a Broadway number. “It could have worked as a musical. Not a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, something more contemporary,” Sorkin quipped. 

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Sorkin had originally considered “Chicago 7” as a stage play, but he wanted to depict the riots – which don’t happen until an hour into the film – in cinematic fashion.

“We’re telling three stories at once: There’s the courtroom drama, there’s the sort of a more personal story between Abbie and Tom, and then the third is the evolution of that big riot on the final night of the convention,” Sorkin said. “Staging that was something I was pretty scared of. I had only directed one movie before this – it had 11 people in it. This movie was going to have tear gas and riots, but I got a lot of help from the Chicago Police Department.”

Abbie repeats a number of times in the movie that it’s a political trial. In a climactic face-off with Tom, Abbie says, “We weren’t arrested because of what we did. We were arrested because who we are.”  

The filmmaker said the narrative reflects “the demonization of dissent” in current times.

Aaron Sorkin (center) directs Joseph Gordon-Levitt and J.C. MacKenzie on the set of "The Trial of the Chicago 7."

“It’s not just someone who disagrees with you, it is someone who wants to see the destruction of America,” he said. “What makes it so disheartening is that we had been looking back at all of the 1960s, all civil-rights movements, and saying, ‘That was awful, but thank God we got through that and we’re better. We don’t have to do that again.’

“It’s like building a house, having it almost finished and then a gust of wind comes and knocks it down.”

However, Sorkin is quick to point out, “This movie ends looking up. You do feel good at the end.”

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