How Aaron Sorkin’s timely Netflix film ‘Chicago 7’ puts Trump’s America on trial

Brian Truitt, USA TODAY
·4 min read

A year ago, Jeremy Strong was marching down Michigan Avenue with his co-stars in Aaron Sorkin’s new Netflix drama “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” taking the same route as their historical counterparts who protested at the 1968 Democratic Convention.

Chanting “No justice, no peace!” felt powerful in the moment, Strong says.

“But at the same time, we had no way of knowing just how timely it would be and that we would be marching six, eight months later chanting those same things on streets in Los Angeles, streets in Minneapolis, streets in Atlanta, streets in Kenosha (and) streets in Seattle," he said.

“Chicago 7” (now streaming on Netflix) is primarily set during the bloody 1968 clash between protesters and Chicago police, and the 1969 legal aftermath, when the trial began for a group of defendants – including Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne), Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen), Jerry Rubin (Strong) and Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) – charged with conspiracy to incite a riot.

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The clash in 1968 between Chicago police and protestors at the Democratic National Convention is depicted in Aaron Sorkin's "The Trial of the Chicago 7."
The clash in 1968 between Chicago police and protestors at the Democratic National Convention is depicted in Aaron Sorkin's "The Trial of the Chicago 7."

With a deep cast of all-stars and Sorkin's filmmaking cred, "Chicago 7" has put itself in the pole position of must-watch movies this very strange, streaming-centric awards season, and is primed to vie for best picture and acting honors. But the movie also has an uncanny timeliness, a period piece that's as much about the present as the past.

Rather than having to tweak the film to match modern times, “the world and this country in particular changed to reflect what was going on in the script,” says Sorkin, who first started working on "Chicago 7" in 2006, when Steven Spielberg asked him to write the film.

“Suddenly, Donald Trump, when he was a candidate and then after he was elected president, was getting nostalgic at his rallies about the good old days when we carry that (protester) out of here on a stretcher and punch him right in the face. We didn't need it to get more relevant, but chillingly it did with the police killings of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery, and those protesters being met with nightsticks and tear gas and rubber bullets."

Also, don't forget the '68 flu pandemic and a former vice president (Hubert Humphrey) running for president.

"There were so many of these parallels that are just sort of extraordinary to witness each day since we've made this film," Redmayne says.

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"Chicago 7" focuses on a group of protest organizers, including young Democrats Hayden and Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp), as well as counterculture merry pranksters Rubin and Hoffman. The movie switches between the fateful day in 1968 and the subsequent trial, and reveals the tense personal relationship between Hayden, who believed in the power of elected officials, and the more revolutionary Hoffman.

Sorkin thinks they're “an interesting reflection of today's Democratic Party (and) the friction between the left and the further left." But Sorkin's film "doesn't take a side – they sort of inform each other," Redmayne says. "The social movement needs both those who can get things done through legislation and the loud voices of change.”

Yahya Abdul-Mateen II stars as Bobby Seale, one of the defendants in "The Trial of the Chicago 7."
Yahya Abdul-Mateen II stars as Bobby Seale, one of the defendants in "The Trial of the Chicago 7."

The courtroom drama's historical setting is “without a doubt” a metaphor for current American politics, Sorkin says, and Seale's treatment by antagonistic Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella) is symbolic of the oppression of people of color.

Seale, a Black Panther Party founder, was a fighter and a man of utmost dignity even amid “a gross miscarriage of justice,” says Abdul-Mateen, who understood "what it's like to be the only Black person in an all-white space" and "to be discriminated against and certainly to be judged."

Because of the way "Chicago 7" examines endemic racism and police violence then and now, it's "really the trial of the American soul," Strong says. "America was in turmoil in 1968 and America is in turmoil now, and the soul of this country is on trial again in November (with the election) and in the Supreme Court hearings.”

Having an entertaining film was important for Sorkin (“It has to go with a bucket of popcorn”), but he also hopes an audience takeaway is “whether you're out in the street or taking a knee during the national anthem to protest police brutality, protesters are not anti-American. They're patriots.”

Strong sees a similar collective energy and hope for change in the younger generation today, and he thinks about the end of “Chicago 7,” when Rubin holds a closed fist high in solidarity during a powerful, emotional moment.

“That felt like a nostalgic gesture to me when we were filming it (last) November,” Strong says. “Now that feels like a very current and immediate and necessary gesture.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'The Trial of the Chicago 7': Aaron Sorkin takes on Trump’s America