Aaron Sorkin says his upcoming Netflix courtroom drama, The Trial of the Chicago 7 — a movie about seven antiwar activists accused by the federal government of conspiracy and incitement to riot because of the protests surrounding the 1968 Democratic National Convention — could have been a Hollywood musical.
“It’s not a musical. I’m just saying, it could have worked as a musical, not a Rogers and Hammerstein musical, something more contemporary,” the West Wing creator said during a virtual masterclass at the Toronto Film Festival on Monday.
Sorkin, as he discussed the creative process behind the Netflix movie, pointed to the intricate opening as he needed to introduce the Chicago Seven, a varied collection of characters, quickly and engagingly against the backdrop of the 1968 convention riots.
“That prologue was important to me, and I didn’t know how to do it on stage, unless it was a musical. There are things you can do in a musical number that are the equivalent of what we’re talking about in the prologue,” he explained.
Sorkin half-jokingly accused the masterclass moderator Elvis Mitchell of dismissing his riff on capturing a seminal moment in 1960s American culture through song and dance.
“You’re mocking me, inside. You’re not outwardly mocking me, but I know you, and I know in your head that’s the worst idea you’ve ever heard. It’s not,” the veteran screenwriter added.
“I would never say this to your face, but…” Mitchell said in response as he drew instant laughter from Sorkin.
In Chicago 7, the organizers of the protest — including Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Tom Hayden and Bobby Seale — faced criminal charges and the trial that followed is recaptured in Sorkin’s movie.
The film features an all-star cast that include Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Sacha Baron Cohen, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Michael Keaton, Frank Langella, John Carroll Lynch, Eddie Redmayne, Mark Rylance, Alex Sharp, Jeremy Strong, Noah Robbins, Danny Flaherty, Ben Shenkman, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Caitlin Fitzgerald, Alice Kremelberg, John Doman, J.C. MacKenzie, Damien Young, Wayne Duvall and C.J. Wilson.
Sorkin also revealed that, while Chicago 7 has an uplifting finale, the comparisons between the riots and turmoil of 1968 and today’s Black Lives Matter protests renders that optimism moot.
“At the end of the movie you feel good, you feel hopeful. I want to make that clear. But what makes it so disheartening is we had been looking back at 1968, all of the 1960s and all of the civil rights movement, and saying, ‘that was awful, but thank God we got through that and we’re better, we don’t have to do that again,'” he said.
But Sorkin then argued much of the progress made during the decades after 1968 came undone in recent years. “It’s like building a house, having it almost finished and a gust of wind comes and knocks it down,” he added.
The Toronto Film Festival continues through Sept. 19.