In October 2019, hundreds of protesters marched down Chicago’s Michigan Avenue toward the Hilton, chanting phrases like “No justice, no peace!” and “A people united will never be defeated!” as police in riot gear descended on the crowd with billy clubs and tear gas. Earnest and energized, clad in 1960s period costumes and flanked by vintage police vehicles, this group thought they were acting out the past, staging a scene from Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7. As it turned out, they were performing the future, too.
Sorkin’s film, which opens in select theaters Sept. 25 and hits Netflix on Oct. 16, tells the story of the riots at the 1968 Chicago Democratic National Convention and the circus-like trial of political activists that followed the next year. Thanks to Hollywood development hell, the movie is arriving 14 years after Steven Spielberg first mentioned the idea to Sorkin but just as its themes and plot points — civil unrest, a self-proclaimed “law and order” president’s vilification of protesters (Nixon then, Trump now), the police’s excessive use of force, tensions within the Democratic Party over how far left to move — have become bracingly current.
“I never wanted the film to be about 1968,” Sorkin says in an interview over Zoom from his house in the Hollywood Hills on Labor Day weekend. “I never wanted it to be an exercise in nostalgia or a history lesson. I wanted it to be about today. But I never imagined that today would get so much like 1968.”
For only the second time in a career spanning nine films as a screenwriter, Sorkin serves as director with Chicago 7, helming a sprawling ensemble cast that includes Eddie Redmayne as anti-war activist Tom Hayden, Sacha Baron Cohen as Youth International Party (Yippie) provocateur Abbie Hoffman, Succession’s Jeremy Strong as counterculture figure Jerry Rubin and Watchmen’s Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as Black Panther party co-founder Bobby Seale. There are undeniable parallels not only between the film and the present political moment but also between the performance-art activism of the actors and the men they’re playing, most vividly Cohen, who, like Hoffman, has made a career of political self-expression through comedic stunts, including crashing a far-right rally in Olympia, Washington, this summer while pretending to be a racist country singer. (Cohen, who shoots most of his satirical projects incognito, impishly calls reports of his appearance at the rally “fake news.”)
Eight months after Sorkin filmed the protest scenes in Chicago, Abdul-Mateen was marching in Black Lives Matter protests in West Hollywood, as was Strong in Brooklyn. “There’s power when a lot of people come together to protest out of anger, out of frustration,” Abdul-Mateen says. “Everybody has a role in the revolution; this film shows that.”
Though the movie feels crafted for this political moment, it was born of another. At Sorkin’s first meeting with Spielberg, “I remember him saying, ‘It would be great if we could have this out before the election,'” Sorkin says. The election Spielberg was talking about was 2008’s, when Barack Obama and Joe Biden faced John McCain and Sarah Palin.
The film hit multiple roadblocks, beginning with the 2007-08 writers strike and continuing as financing faltered repeatedly, a fate illustrated by the more than 30 producers who can claim some sort of credit on Chicago 7. It took another unscheduled detour this summer after Sorkin finished it as the pandemic worsened, and the odds of original distributor Paramount mounting a successful theatrical release before the Nov. 3 election seemed increasingly slim. For some involved with the film, there is a question about the ethics of Hollywood inviting audiences to return to theaters before a COVID-19 vaccine is widely available. “There’s a moral quandary that we, the motion picture business, have to be careful that we don’t become the tobacco industry, where we’re encouraging people to do something we know is potentially lethal,” says Cohen.
Before his visit to Spielberg’s Pacific Palisades home to discuss the project on a Saturday afternoon in 2006, Sorkin knew next to nothing about the Chicago 7. The federal government had charged seven defendants — Hoffman, Rubin, Hayden, David Dellinger, Rennie Davis, John Froines and Lee Weiner — with conspiracy for their participation in the protests against the Vietnam War outside the Democratic National Convention. (Originally the men were known as the Chicago 8 and included Seale, who asked to have his trial separated from that of the others and postponed so that he could be represented by his preferred lawyer, who was ill; that trial never took place.) When Spielberg proposed a movie about the riots and the trial that followed, Sorkin, who was 7 in 1968, said, “‘You know, that sounds great. Count me in.’ As soon as I left his house, I called my father and said, ‘Dad, do you know anything about a riot that happened in 1968 or a crazy conspiracy trial that followed?’ I was just saying yes to Steven.”
Despite his ignorance, Sorkin was a logical choice to write the project: Having penned Broadway’s A Few Good Men and its 1992 film adaptation as well as the long-running NBC series West Wing, he’d shown a flair for dramatizing courtroom procedures and liberal politics, and he turned in his first draft of the Chicago 7 script in 2007. Originally, Spielberg planned to direct the project himself, but by the time the writers strike was over, he had moved on and a number of other potential directors circled, including Paul Greengrass, Ben Stiller, Peter Berg and Gary Ross, though none was able to get it off the ground. “There was just a feeling that, ‘Look, this isn’t an Avengers film,'” Sorkin says of the studios’ move away from midbudget dramas and toward action tentpoles in the 2010s. “This isn’t an easy sell at the box office. And there are big scenes, riots, crowd scenes. How can this movie be done for the budget that makes sense for what the expectation is at the box office?”
As the project languished, Sorkin tried writing it as a play, ultimately spending 18 months on a fruitless effort to fashion a stage treatment. “What I didn’t like was having a script in my drawer,” he says. “I was just thinking, ‘Jeez, this is a good movie and it feels like it’s stillborn.'”
It was the confluence of two events that ultimately revived the film with Sorkin in the director’s chair in 2018 — the 2016 election of Donald Trump and the 2017 release of Sorkin’s well-received directorial debut, Molly’s Game, which doubled its production budget at the box office. “This is before George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and police protests or confrontations,” Sorkin says. “This is just when Donald Trump was musing nostalgically about the old days when they used to carry that guy [a protester] out of here on a stretcher and punch the crap out of him.”
With Trump’s throwback rhetoric lending the subject matter a new timeliness and Sorkin’s directing chops confirmed in Spielberg’s eyes, the movie moved forward with its screenwriter at the helm.
Cross Creek Pictures came in to finance, and Paramount bought the domestic rights. But all those years in development had left an expensive imprint on the project — a jaw-dropping $11 million had been spent on casting costs, producing fees and the optioning of Brett Morgen’s 2007 documentary about the event, Chicago 10, leaving just $24 million for the actual 36-day production.
One way Sorkin attempts to achieve a sense of scope despite that budget is by intercutting real black-and-white news footage with his dramatized protests. He rounded out his large cast with a deep bench of experienced and award-winning actors including Oscar winner Mark Rylance as defense attorney William Kunstler, Oscar nominee Frank Langella as Judge Julius Hoffman, Joseph Gordon-Levitt as prosecutor Richard Schultzand, Oscar nominee Michael Keaton as former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark — with the filmmaker and many of his actors working for scale. (Abdul-Mateen and Strong both became first-time Emmy winners Sept. 20.)
Sorkin shot the protest scenes on location in Chicago and built a courtroom set in an old church sanctuary in Paterson, New Jersey, because none of the available courtroom locations in the Garden State conveyed the scope he wanted. “If we’re saying the whole world is watching, I want a packed courtroom for six months full of press and spectators,” Sorkin says. “I wanted the big, cavernous feeling of the federal government and its power coming down on these people.”
Among the vestiges of Spielberg’s original plan was the casting of Cohen as Hoffman, which required the London native to affect a Boston accent and return to a subject he had studied as an undergraduate at Christ’s College in Cambridge, where he wrote a thesis paper about Jewish activists during the civil rights movement. At 19, Cohen had interviewed Bob Moses, the leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which Hoffman was involved in before he founded the anti-war Yippie movement. “Honestly, I was very proud of the fact that Jews were involved in the Black civil rights movement in the ’60s, and there wasn’t much written about it,” Cohen says, explaining his youthful scholarship.
There’s a clear line to draw between Hoffman’s 1960s theatrics — which included throwing fistfuls of money into the gallery of the New York Stock Exchange and vowing to levitate the Pentagon — and Cohen’s contemporary TV and film pranks. Perhaps among Cohen’s most memorable and pointed gags was getting Vice President Dick Cheney to gleefully autograph a waterboard kit, which the comic did while posing as an admiring Israeli anti-terror expert for a 2018 episode of Who Is America?, his Showtime series. “What I wanted to do was to show that he was proud of torturing,” Cohen says. “I could not believe how happy Cheney was to be sitting next to an uber-fan. So, yes. Ultimately in the shows and the movies that I do, I’m trying to be funny, but yeah, I’m trying to get out the anger that I have within me.”
Cohen sees Hoffman’s unorthodox protest methods as pragmatic. “The Yippies were underfunded, and he was using theatricality to gain attention for his aims,” Cohen says. “He wanted to stop the war. And how do you do that? You use stunts and absurdist humor to try to effect change.” The actor estimates that, after researching Hoffman, he pitched Sorkin hundreds of lines the activist had really delivered. “As an annoying person with a lot of chutzpah, I was emailing Aaron every other night until morning, ‘What about this line? What about this line?'” Cohen says. The writer-director, known for his exacting prose, politely tolerated the suggestions while largely sticking to his own script.
As Rubin, Strong is playing Hoffman’s conscientious jester sidekick, a role wildly different from the tragic, wealthy approval seeker he portrays on Succession. Strong added some of his own dramatic flourishes, including painting words on his chest for one courtroom scene and bringing a remote-controlled fart machine to disrupt Langella’s imperious judge. “I wanted to channel as much as possible that spirit of the merry prankster and of joyous dissent,” Strong says. Hoffman and Rubin’s real-life personae were so large that Sorkin at times asked his actors to dial down their faithful portrayals, requesting, after one particularly jubilant take, “less cowbell.”
Sorkin’s script draws a sharp contrast between Hoffman and Rubin’s campy methods and Hayden’s more reserved approach to the anti-war movement, with the tensions between Hoffman and Hayden supplying the film’s key relationship in a kind of begrudging brotherhood of the peace movement. To learn more about Hayden, Redmayne studied remarks that Jane Fonda, who was married to the activist and politician from 1973 to 1990, made upon his death in 2016. In his own life, Redmayne is cautious when it comes to discussing the role that he, as an actor at the center of a huge studio franchise (Warner Bros.’ Fantastic Beasts) might have in political life. “I find it endlessly challenging,” Redmayne says of navigating his public activism. “There’s the elitist thing. It’s speaking up on climate change but being conscious that you’re traveling a lot. One has to be aware of one’s own hypocrisies, because they can be detrimental to something you believe in. So sometimes I find that I have to live my life and speak to my advocacy in a way in that it’s around friends, family and people I know rather than making something public.”
Abdul-Mateen has begun his acting career largely associated with fantastical roles, like Dr. Manhattan on HBO’s Watchmen, Black Manta in Aquaman and Candyman in the upcoming Jordan Peele-produced remake of the slasher film. Playing Seale represented a chance to do more grounded work and to depict a man who had loomed large during Abdul-Mateen’s childhood in Oakland, where Seale co-founded the Black Panthers in 1966 and later ran for mayor. Seale’s inclusion in the original Chicago riots indictment was controversial and strange — prosecutors accused him of conspiring with men he’d never met after visiting Chicago that week for only a few hours to deliver a speech. For the prosecution, Seale functioned largely as a prop to tap into the fears of white jurors and white Americans watching the news coverage, and during the trial he had no attorney. “I wanted to key in on, how did Bobby Seale survive this trial?” Abdul-Mateen says. “How did he survive the gross mistreatment by the United States government, and how did he go through that with his head high and not be broken? It was an exercise in finding my pride, finding my dignity.”
In one scene, Seale is brought into the courtroom bound and gagged, and throughout the trial he is kept separate from the white defendants. “Although it was meant to be a humiliating act, I walked out with my chest high, with my head high. Bound and gagged and everything else. It would be very dangerous for a Black man in that time, even sometimes today, to show the proof of the wear and tear that oppression can take on a person, because that can be seen as a sign of weakness, and a sign of weakness is an open door that it’s working.” For the moments of lightness that Cohen and Strong bring to the movie, Abdul-Mateen supplies ballast. “It’s important for the right reasons and at the right time to make art that makes people uncomfortable,” he says.
Spielberg has remained involved in the film “in an emeritus role,” Sorkin says, “from giving me good script notes to casting to notes on early cuts of the film.” He also showed up to the New Jersey courtroom set. “When you have to direct a scene in front of Steven Spielberg, you’re not at your most relaxed necessarily,” Sorkin says. Spielberg did not, however, take an executive producing credit on the film and declined to be interviewed about it.
The decision to switch to a streaming release came after an early summer marketing strategy call between Sorkin, Paramount chief Jim Gianopulos, other Paramount execs and some of the film’s producers. “At the end of the call, Jim said, ‘Listen, we don’t know what the theater business is going to look like in the fall. We have troubling data telling us that the first people back in movie theaters are going to be the people who think that the coronavirus is a hoax,'” Sorkin says. This was clearly not the intended audience for a movie whose heroes are liberal activists. “I said, ‘I don’t think the Idaho militia are going to be the first people coming to this movie,'” Sorkin says.
The group agreed to explore alternatives and gave Netflix, Amazon, Apple and Hulu 24 hours to watch the film. After a bidding war, Chicago 7 landed at Netflix in a $56 million deal against its $35 million production budget, with a robust marketing campaign and promise of a theatrical release. “We knew we didn’t have the option of ‘Let’s wait a year,'” Sorkin says. “This is what we’re thinking about and what we’re talking about right now, and it just would have been a real shame to not release it now.”
After Chicago 7 opens in limited release, Netflix will add more theaters in the U.S. and abroad throughout October, expanding upon the film’s premiere on the service, a strategy akin to what it provided Oscar best picture nominees The Irishman and Roma, albeit in a wildly different theatrical environment.
As Hollywood opens up to more production, Sorkin, and many of the Chicago 7 actors, have begun returning to work. Abdul-Mateen has been in Berlin for The Matrix 4 and Redmayne in London for Fantastic Beasts 3, while Sorkin is shooting a West Wing reunion special at the Orpheum Theatre in downtown L.A. that will premiere on HBO Max in October as a fundraiser for When We All Vote and include video appearances by Michelle Obama, Bill Clinton and Lin-Manuel Miranda.
For the real-life Chicago 7, the denouement consisted of ultimately being acquitted of conspiracy. Judge Hoffman sentenced Seale to four years in prison for contempt of court, one of the longest sentences ever handed down for that offense in the U.S., but those charges were overturned on appeal. Just three of the original eight defendants — Seale, Froines and Weiner — are still alive, but the legacy of the case lives on in contemporary protest movements. “The movie is tribute to the bravery of the protesters of 1968 and the protesters of today in Belarus, on the streets of America, in Portland,” Cohen says. “These people now are risking their lives, and they’ll continue risking them.”
This story first appeared in the Sept. 23 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.