Narratively speaking, Aaron Sorkin’s “The Trial of the Chicago 7” stands apart from the rest of the Best Picture and Original Script nominees for its scope and multi-layered approach. The fact-based drama balances three story threads in a “Rashomon” fashion: the overheated courtroom drama, how the peaceful demonstrations turned violent during the ’68 Democratic Convention in Chicago, and the bitter political rivalry between Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) and Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen).
That’s a lot of history and conflict to pack into 130 minutes, which is why Sorkin cleverly wrote a sprawling 12-page prologue to set up the whole movie, calling for archival footage, tricky tonal shifts, and jumping back and forth in time. And the six and a half-minute sequence (view below) proved quite the challenge and opportunity for Oscar-nominated Alan Baumgarten to edit. “It serves several purposes,” he said. “It provides a bit of a history lesson, setting the time and place and outlining the [courtroom drama] that is going to occur, and it introduces our characters, who will be engaging and intersecting in this big event.”
To Sorkin, it was “a country coming off the rails,” according to Baumgarten, with assassinations, war, and the battle for civil rights, and the prologue served as a microcosm of what would follow. It begins with archival footage of President Johnson declaring the escalation of troop involvement in the Vietnam War and segues to the draft lottery that winds up on a young black man looking at his draft notice in shock. “It’s a balance of how much information to give and how much context to give,” Baumgarten continued. “It’s a lot to take in and we have to assume that a lot of people viewing this film don’t know much about the subject. Laying the foundation was critical for us and doing it in the most dynamic and efficient way possible was going to be the challenge. We needed the audience to process this information but also keep it coming because there was a lot to portray.”
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There were minor adjustments once they started assembling the sequence: They leaned a little more heavily into showing the impact of Vietnam with additional archival footage of the troop escalation and casualties. “To hear about increased military activity is one thing, but to see a visual representation of the results of that is more dramatic and gives us a fuller context of what’s at stake,” added Baumgarten. They also provided more exposition about the escalation of Chicago police and National Guard deployment to confront the protesters at the behest of Mayor Daley.
Meanwhile, introducing the defendants in the eventual trial was like lighting a fuse. Hayden and Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp) of the Students for a Democratic Society address a crowd of students in an auditorium to declare their intentions for a peaceful protest, in contrast to Hoffman and Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong) of the Youth International Party addressing students in a club with more irreverence. Additionally, David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch) assures his family that the protest will be non-violent, while Black Panther Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) argues that the confrontation in Chicago is worth the personal risks.
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“It’s very well written how there’s a hand off from one character to another, but we pulled back on a couple of dialogue lines, which we don’t do a lot in Aaron’s films,” said Baumgarten. “We were always running the risk of pushing the sequence a bit longer because of those [character introductions]. And they didn’t have the same montage rhythm that the archival bits had. So one or two lines were cut from the Dellinger sequence, and we added an extra beat to Tom Hayden in the last piece for more balance, when he addresses the students and says that they’re peaceful, serious people.”
In the end, it’s the dialectic between Hayden and Hoffman — the idealist versus the anarchist — which elevates Sorkin’s courtroom drama. And that’s where the prologue excels the most in establishing their character arcs. “We had an explosive scene at the end where they go at it,” Baumgarten said, “but we realized you want to show the seeds of this hostility and friction between them and maintain it throughout at key moments. And that’s where we spent most of our time and energy. We’re not following one character, it’s multiple points of view of a large subject within a large cast, so to identify it through a couple of characters really helped.”