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How Aaron Sorkin preserved the disorder of Chicago’s 1969 courtroom ‘circus’

Director of ‘The Trial of the Chicago 7,’ which arrives Friday on Netflix, says he insisted on — and got — access to Grant Park and Michigan Avenue for his movie about a historic time of unrest.

Chicago police battle protesters in a scene from “The Trial of the Chicago 7.”
Netflix

The chant echoed through Grant Park and the downtown canyons of Chicago and eventually reverberated around the planet via television and radio newscasts: “The whole world is watching, the whole world is watching, the whole world is watching …”

The whole world was watching when Chicago police clashed with antiwar protesters during the 1968 Democratic National Convention — and the whole world was watching in 1969 when the U.S. government brought charges of inciting a riot, among other felonies, against protest leaders. That case is the subject of writer-director Aaron Sorkin’s “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” which has been playing in limited theatrical release the last three weeks and will be debuting on Netflix this Friday.

I recently sat down for a video chat interview with Sorkin, who has written one of the best courtroom dramas of all time in “A Few Good Men” and has had great success adapting and fictionalizing true-life stories, from “The Social Network” (for which he won an Oscar), “Moneyball,” “Charlie Wilson’s War” and “Molly’s Game.”

Sorkin told me the origins of the movie date back nearly 15 years.

“This all started in 2006, when I was asked to come to Steven Spielberg’s house on a Saturday morning. To be clear, that is not common, I don’t hang out with Steven Spielberg. He told me that he wanted to direct, and he wanted me to write, about the riots in 1968 and the conspiracy trial that followed. I said, ‘Count me in.’

“I left his house, called my father and said, ‘What happened in Chicago in 1968, do you know anything about a conspiracy trial?’ I had only a vague sense of what Steven was talking about.”

For the usual reasons of budget and casting and scheduling and timing, the project was delayed time and again — until it all came together just a few years ago.

Aaron Sorkin directs a courtroom scene on the set of “The Trial of the Chicago 7.”
Netflix

“Three things happened at once,” said Sorkin. “Donald Trump was elected president, I directed my first film, ‘Molly’s Game,’ which Steven was sufficiently impressed with he thought I should [not only write but] direct the film — and the City of Chicago said, ‘You can shoot the movie here and we’ll make it easier for you.’ Tax abatement-wise, that kind of thing. So, we were able to shoot Grant Park scenes in Grant Park, and Michigan Avenue scenes on Michigan Avenue.”

Parts of “The Trial of the Chicago 7” were filmed on the campuses of Saint Elizabeth University and Fairleigh Dickinson University (both in New Jersey), but Sorkin said the movie wouldn’t have been made had he not received permission to film certain scenes in Chicago.

Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) and David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch) approach a line of Chicago police in “The Trial of the Chicago 7.”
Netflix

“Chicago was so welcoming,” he said. “Most of the [Chicago police officers] are being played by off-duty Chicago police officers, many of whom are the children of Chicago police officers who were there in 1968. It was a fantastic experience. When we had crowds marching down the street, chanting ‘The whole world is watching,’ there are residential apartment buildings right around that area. People who lived in Chicago their whole lives had to be thinking, ‘This can’t possibly be happening again!’ ”

Like virtually every fictional movie ever based on real-life events, “The Trial of the Chicago 7” takes some poetic license with the timeline, creates a few scenes out of whole cloth and compresses events. In the case of the actual trial, however, Sorkin chose to omit some of the more over-the-top true-life theatrics, including Judy Collins breaking into “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” from the witness stand and Beat generation poet Allen Ginsberg repeatedly chanting “Om” and testifying in Sanskrit.

“In a courtroom drama, you’re going to make it crackle a little more than a real trial,” said Sorkin. “But when it came to moments like Bobby Seale’s objections or the judge’s response, and the moment when he had [Seale] bound and gagged, I wasn’t going to touch any of that. That was right out of the trial transcript.

“There was more circus in that courtroom than I show in the movie. The scene where Sacha Baron Cohen [as Abbie Hoffman] and Jeremy Strong [as Jerry Rubin] enter the court wearing judges’ robes and then take them off with police shirts underneath — that really happened, but I decided to take it out of the movie, and it took Sacha and Jeremy lobbying me to put that back in. They persuaded me, and they were right.”

Jeremy Strong (left), who plays Jerry Rubin in “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” and Sacha Baron Cohen, who plays Abbie Hoffman, talked writer-director Aaron Sorkin (right) into a script adjustment.
Netflix

Sacha Baron Cohen had been cast as clown prince agitator Abbie Hoffman when Spielberg and Sorkin were just getting started on the project. When it was finally greenlit, Cohen called Sorkin and said he was still on board: “Sacha made it very clear to me: ‘I don’t care that 13 years have gone by, no one will be playing this role but me.’ I think there were threats of violence in there — or more like threats of pranks that he was clearly capable of pulling off.”

For a lot of viewers, 1969 might as well be 1369, but there are so many obvious parallels between the social unrest of the 1960s with the America of 2020. Sorkin said the challenge was making those points without sacrificing good storytelling.

“Before a film can be anything else, before it can be relevant, before it can be persuasive, before it can start a discussion, it has to be a good film. Just by the rules of drama, it has to be a good story well-told. It has to be something that is successful as something you would eat popcorn during. You’re right, for most people, 1969 might as well be 1369 — but people are going to see things in this movie that sound a lot like 2020. I never wanted the film to be about 1968, 1969, 1970; I wanted it to be about today.

“We thought the film was plenty relevant when we were making it last winter. We didn’t need it to get more relevant, but it has, in shocking and chilling ways. If you watch any of the clashes between protesters and police, whether it’s in Minneapolis or Madison or Kenosha or Louisville or Washington, the footage looks exactly like the footage from 1968. We are once again in an extremely polarized country, where dissent has been demonized as un-American. We went through this traumatic transition getting from the 1950s to the 1970s … somehow we’re back to where we were before.”