For the Record
Writer-director Aaron Sorkin’s gripping new historical drama The Trial of the Chicago 7 zooms in on the violence that erupted around the Democratic National Convention in August 1968, when anti-Vietnam War demonstrations led to clashes between protesters and the authorities. The story is set in the past, but there’s no question that the film — which traces both the protests and the subsequent court proceedings against the leaders of the movement — bristles with immediacy in our present political moment.
“I think it’s going to be even more timely, as we are going to be faced with the question: What do we as individuals do to protect democracy when it’s being ripped away from us?” says Sacha Baron Cohen, who plays left-wing agitator Abbie Hoffman. “I do fear that protests may be the only option that’s available post-election if the mail-in votes are prevented from being counted fully. I fear that the American people will have this choice that the Chicago Seven had: Do we stand by or do we stand up?”
Hoffman, the co-founder of the Youth International Party (Yippies), was one of the men charged by the federal government with conspiracy to incite a riot, among other crimes. Indicted along with him were: Jerry Rubin (played by Jeremy Strong), the other Yippie co-founder; Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) and Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp), leaders of the Students for a Democratic Society; David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch), chairman of the Mobilization to End the War in Vietnam; and fellow organizers John Froines (Danny Flaherty) and Lee Weiner (Noah Robbins). Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), co-founder of the Black Panther Party, was also a defendant, though his case was ultimately declared a mistrial.
In scripting the film, Sorkin sought to capture the dynamic between the charismatic Hoffman and the more soft-spoken Hayden, whose wildly divergent styles often brought them into conflict. “The source of the tension between Abbie and Jerry on one side and Tom on the other is very much reflected in the intramural tension right now between the left and the further left,” says Sorkin. “There are people who say change has to be incremental, we have to win elections, now’s not the time to talk about defunding the police. There are others saying we’re tired of incremental progress, it’s time to start breaking things.”
Queue’s Krista Smith recently spoke to Sorkin, Redmayne, Baron Cohen, and Strong about what it was like to work with this cast of heavy hitters — which also includes Mark Rylance, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Frank Langella — on The Trial of the Chicago 7.
Krista Smith: Aaron, why did you have to make this movie now?
Aaron Sorkin (Writer-director): It has been in the works since 2006. It was Steven Spielberg who said that he wanted to make a movie about the riots in Chicago in 1968 and the crazy conspiracy trial that followed. I said, “I’m in. I want to write that movie.” I then left his house, called my father and asked him if he knew anything about riots that happened in Chicago in 1968 or a crazy conspiracy trial that followed. I didn’t know what Steven was talking about. I was saying yes to Steven, and I heard the word “trial” in there and I was on board for that.
There was a lot of research to do, and that research, fortunately, included Tom Hayden, who passed away four years ago in 2016. There are a dozen good books about what happened in Chicago over those three days, and there are the trial transcripts. But what I wouldn’t have been able to get from anyone but Hayden was the friction between Tom and Abbie. The way I would organize the film was into three stories that we were telling at once: the courtroom drama, the evolution of the riots — how what was supposed to be a peaceful protest evolved into such a bloody confrontation with police and the National Guard — and then these two guys, both on the same side, both wanting the same thing, who have no respect for each other, each thinking that the other is doing harm to the cause, who grow to respect each other by the end.
For the actors, what goes through your mind when an Aaron Sorkin script drops in your lap?
Eddie Redmayne (Tom Hayden): People quite often ask you who you want to work with or what parts you want to play. There was always one person on the bucket list for me — which sounds incredibly sycophantic — and that was Aaron, because I, like much of the world, was a West Wing fanatic.
I was on holiday with a broken foot and food poisoning in Marrakesh, feeling pretty miserable. This script arrived and it said “Aaron Sorkin.” I called my agent and said I’d absolutely love to do it. There are those people that you just want to work with. I read the script, and I found it staggeringly compelling. I found it thrilling. I found it funny and deeply moving.
Jeremy Strong (Jerry Rubin): A script from Aaron, it’s like a holy grail. It’s like a nigh-perfect piece of classical music. He’s written a symphony. I come from the theater, and so the text is sacred. It’s not often that you work on a film that you actually feel that way about the text. It felt like one of the best scripts I’d ever read. It felt like it couldn’t have happened at a more important time.
Sacha Baron Cohen (Abbie Hoffman): Everybody wants to say Aaron’s words on camera. I think he’s the modern-day Shakespeare — and he’s a lot more consistent and reliable; he hasn’t had any flops, no Titus Andronicus. The thing that most people don’t know about Aaron is that he’s actually a wonderful director. That was amazingly comforting for myself and the other actors. We knew that we were in the presence of a writer-director who had a precise vision of what he wanted this movie to be.
Sacha, you knew a lot about Abbie Hoffman going into this. What was the most important thing for the audience to know about him?
Baron Cohen: I did my undergraduate thesis on Jewish activists in the Black civil rights movement during the period of ’60 to ’67 — so a year before the events in Chicago. Abbie was one of these Jewish left-wing students who ventured down South to ensure that people of color had the right to vote.
In the internecine struggle within the left at the time — which is beautifully crystallized in the fight between Tom and Abbie — you see this dismissal of Abbie and the Yippies as foolish attention-seekers who are just trying to make light of the scenarios and the gravity of the war, by trying to levitate the Pentagon or showering the Stock Exchange with dollar bills. But Aaron shows that Abbie is somebody who’s willing to sacrifice his life. When we’ve seen the events of the last few months and the Black Lives Matter movement, you realize that these protestors who are on the streets are incredibly courageous. Whether they be in Chicago or Kenosha, they are exercising their democratic rights and often risking their lives. For me, that was inspiring, to play somebody that courageous.
Tom Hayden is the other side of that coin, so to speak.
Redmayne: Yeah. Tom, in his own way, was anarchic; before this he had been arrested [as part of] the Freedom Rides. But ultimately, Tom thought Abbie was perhaps detrimental to the movement. They were ultimately fighting for the same side, but one was approaching through policy, within the system, and the other one in this more characterful way, this more exposing way, through protests.Tom Hayden was married to Jane Fonda later in his life, and she wrote this beautiful thing on her website about his memorial service. She describes how “he was able to whisper to me the day before he died that seeing people willing to die for their beliefs changed him forever.” That was something that stayed with me. His seriousness, his passion, and his commitment and integrity were astounding.
Jerry Rubin had a lot of comedy to him, but at the same time, he was very serious.
Strong: Jerry was someone who had gone in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee dressed as Santa Claus and dressed as an American Revolutionary soldier. Abbie and Jerry and the Yippies, they were these merry pranksters, and they used a sense of theater to express their dissent. At the same time, I think that Jerry Rubin would certainly be out on the streets in Minneapolis and in Atlanta and in Kenosha and in Portland and in Seattle. These were people who were incredibly courageous and would put themselves on the line for their convictions. So it was very liberating to play the character because of how colorful he is, but the fire underneath that is really the thing. The movie is really a celebration of protests and a celebration of dissent and a celebration of freedom when pitted against the forces of oppression, where we find ourselves again today.
How did you find the experience of working in the courtroom set, day after day, shooting those scenes?
Redmayne: I thought it was heaven, I must say. My character actually had very little to say during the courtroom, and because Aaron had cast the film to the hilt, it was a daily master class as you watched Frank Langella, Rylance, or Jeremy, Sacha, Yahya. You got to see everyone’s processes. One of the greatest elements of this film for me was the proper old-school ensemble sense of the movie.
Baron Cohen: We often had hundreds of extras filling the courtroom. I remember the first rehearsal, everybody ran their lines, and at the end, all the extras applauded as if they’d just seen an incredible Broadway play. The level that these actors work at is inspiring, and for someone like me, completely intimidating. Luckily, I had an absurdist character who I could have fun with, as did Jeremy.
Redmayne: It was just so flipping wonderful to see what in Jeremy’s bag of tricks would be coming each day. In this wonderful way that really did encompass the spirit of Jerry Rubin, there were fart machines under Frank Langella’s chair that would sporadically go off during close-ups. There was a joyful sense of playfulness that I got to witness.
Sorkin: If you wanted the scene, you had to take it away from Jeremy, basically.
Strong: Aaron, what I was trying to do was bring Jerry’s spirit of defiance and theatricality, and be in contempt of court — always to serve you.
Baron Cohen: Listen, you never know what’s going to happen. We’d do a scene and suddenly Jeremy’s shirt would be off, and he’d have painted nipples. The great thing for me was it kept me on my toes.
At one point, Bobby Seale, brilliantly played by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, is brought into the courtroom bound and gagged. What was it like to witness that moment, knowing that actually happened?
Strong: I was shocked by it. I felt sickened by it. It felt like something in me broke when I saw what this judge was capable of.
Baron Cohen: As actors, we were still seeing a Black man being bound and gagged and brought into a room, and it was shocking. I do remember at the end of the scene, they took the cloth out of Yahya’s mouth and he was in tears.
Strong: What I love about that moment in Yahya’s performance is that it’s not a moment of victimhood. It’s a moment of extreme defiance and courageousness.
What conversations do you hope that this film starts? The parallels to what we’re living through right now are undeniable.
Sorkin: I was asked the other day if I changed the script to mirror events in the world, and I didn’t at all. The events changed to mirror the script, and that’s what I’m so shaken by. As a country, you live through something like what happened in 1968, and you look back and you think, I don’t understand how that could have happened, but at least we got through it. We learned our lesson, so that will never happen again. Then it does. It feels like you’ve been pushing a boulder up a mountain for decades, and it just slid back. I don’t think for most people it’s going to be a film where once it’s over, you’re on to talking about something else. . . . What I hope is that it starts a conversation like the conversations that happened in our movie.