Aaron Sorkin’s ‘The Trial of the Chicago 7’ Launches Netflix Oscars 2021 Rollout

"I fear the American people have the same choice as the Chicago 7 had," said Sacha Baron Cohen. "Do we stand by or stand up?"
"The Trial of the Chicago 7"
Niko Tavernise/NETFLIX © 2020

Netflix skipped the fall festivals, but the streamer will launch its robust award season lineup with Aaron Sorkin’s “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” which hits select theaters September 25, three weeks before its October 16 streaming date. The Oscar-winning screenwriter (“The Social Network”) returns to the director’s chair with this long-in-the-works courtroom drama, initially developed by DreamWorks for Steven Spielberg to direct.

Sorkin delivers a powerful Oscar contender as a great cast runs with his brilliant dialogue that serves witty real-life characters and high-pitched drama. While Best Picture, Director, and Screenplay nods are in the bag, Netflix hasn’t yet decided how to play out the Oscar categories for this wide-ranging cast.

It’s likely the awards team will push the most established stars for Best Actor: Oscar-winner Eddie Redmayne (“The Theory of Everything”) as Tom Hayden and Original Screenplay Oscar nominee Sacha Baron Cohen (“Borat”) as Abbie Hoffman. Netflix could then campaign for Supporting Actor recent Emmy-winners Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (“Watchmen”) as Black Panther Bobby Seale and Jeremy Strong as Jerry Rubin (“Succession”), along with Oscar-winner Mark Rylance (“Bridge of Spies”) as defense lawyer William Kunstler and Oscar nominee Frank Langella (“Frost/Nixon”) as conservative Judge Julius Hoffman. This timely drama will be catnip for Academy boomers.

Sorkin wrote one script back in 2007, when Cohen lobbied to play Yippie leader Hoffman. He was attached when Paramount picked up the project (which sold it to Netflix during the pandemic, the better to release it in time for the presidential election). Sorkin did rewrites over the years, but the deadly clashes between peaceful anti-war demonstrators outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention and the Chicago police and National Guard were “budget-busters,” he said during a September 22 Q&A following a virtual live press screening. After the election of Donald Trump in 2016, and after watching Sorkin’s 2018 debut “Molly’s Game,” which featured Strong, Spielberg was convinced that it was time to make the movie with Sorkin directing.

Sorkin’s script had to thread the evolution of peaceful protests into bloody riots outside the Democratic convention; the intense ideological debate between Yippie performance artist Hoffman and insider activist Hayden about the right way to stage a revolution; and the conspiracy trial dominated by larger-than-life protest leaders Hayden, Hoffman, and Rubin, as well as the unrepresented Seale, who was treated monstrously by the conservative Hoffman.

“Four hours, that’s how long I was in Chicago,” Seale stands and yells at the courtroom before one of many contempt counts. It’s hard to remember how bad things were then, as we confront even more horrifying prospects now.

Sacha Baron Cohen plays Abbie Hoffman

Before Hayden passed in 2016, he met with Sorkin to fill him in on the intramural warfare between him and Hoffman. Sorkin read a dozen books about the trial as well as court transcripts, he said, “but I wouldn’t have been able to get from anyone but Hayden the friction between Tom and Abbie … two guys on the same side, who want the same thing, with no respect for the other, each thinking the other is doing harm, who have cause to grow to respect each other by the end.”

“We’re here to end the war, not to fuck around,” Hayden tells Hoffman in the movie.

“I went to Brandeis, I can do both,” says Hoffman, who hesitates before giving an answer in the witness box, saying, “I’ve never been on trial for my thoughts before.” The movie is very much on his side.

As ever, Sorkin’s actors marveled at the rhythm of his writing. “I knew nothing about the period or this movement,” said Redmayne, who committed a few years ago to play the film’s least sympathetic anti-war leader. “I found it staggeringly compelling, thrilling and funny, and deeply moving.”

“It’s like a holy grail; it’s like a near-perfect piece of classical music,” said Strong, who stole the press conference as much as he stole the movie. “He’s written a symphony: the precision, the soul of it. I come from theater where the text is sacred. It’s not often I work on a film where I feel like that about a text.”

“We knew we were in the presence of a writer-director with a precise vision of the movie he wanted to see,” said Cohen, who wrote a college thesis on Jewish anti-war activists like Hoffman but was terrified of mastering Hoffman’s Massachusetts accent. “Seeing it, it was completely clear that it was one complete, 3D breathing piece. As an actor, you want the safety and security of being with somebody who’s brilliant. I have only done three other dramas.”

Sorkin “started with historical fact,” he said. “That’s the flour and water. Then you have to make decisions: We’re telling a story here. Decisions about what it is about this person, what’s their intention, how are they overcoming the obstacle in front of them that serves this story.”

Netflix’s “The Trial of the Chicago 7” press conference

Cohen admires Hoffman for “his passion and his courage,” he said. “In the movie, they debate if he is the fool; he is in fact an intelligent activist with real noble ends. Aaron brilliantly plays with that dichotomy and that question. What becomes clear at the end is Abbie is willing to risk his life to challenge the internecine struggle in the Left at the time, which echoes the progressives and moderates in the Democratic party, crystallized in the fight between Tom and Abbie.”

Strong believes that Rubin would be out in the streets with today’s protesters. “It was fun to play the character, he is so colorful,” said Strong, “but it’s the fire underneath that is the thing. The movie is about the acceleration of protest and dissent and freedom when pitted against the forces of oppression, which is where we find ourselves again today.”

Sorkin worries about “the demonization of protests during this campaign from people on the right,” he said. “There are people who say change is incremental, we have to win elections, now is not the time for defunding police or the green New Deal. Others are saying they are tired of incremental progress, it’s time to start breaking things.”

Said Cohen, “I fear the American people have the same choice as the Chicago 7 had. Do we stand by or stand up?”

Next up: Netflix will continue its awards rollout with Italian Sophia Loren vehicle “Life Ahead” on November 13 (preceded by a week in theaters), followed by a series of still undated films hitting theaters through the end of the year: David Fincher’s “Mank,” Ron Howard’s “Hillbilly Elegy,” George C. Wolfe’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” Ryan Murphy musical “The Prom,” and rolling out last, George Clooney thriller “Midnight Sky” and Ramin Bahrani drama “White Tiger.”

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