Though it’s set 50 years ago, “The Trial of the Chicago 7” is contemporary and important. Writer-director Aaron Sorkin tells Variety, “Even from the beginning, I didn’t want the film to be about 1968, I wanted it to be about today. None of us realized how much about today it would end up being.”
Sorkin spoke about the parallels to our times in the film, which earned six Oscar nominations, including best picture. While “Chicago 7” addresses heavy-duty topics, Sorkin says if someone hasn’t seen it, “I want them to know they will leave it feeling good. This is a valentine to patriotism and to protest.”
Variety: President Biden’s victory gave momentary hope that our problems might be ending, but the film seems more urgent than ever.
A: On January 20, some problems did go away. The biggest problem is that tens of millions of Americans firmly believe things that simply aren’t true and refuse to believe things that are, whether it’s the winner of an election or whether there is a deadly virus going around. Other problems like systemic racism didn’t go away on January 20. This is a country founded on protest — and for the following 250 years or so, every important change was preceded by civil protest.
Q: Americans are ambivalent: We love the Boston Tea Party but seem to hate modern protests.
A: That idea of “America, love it or leave it” was a big inspiration for doing the film. Audiences are responding to the patriotism of protest, that if you’re taking a knee during the national anthem, you’re not saying you hate America. Today, it’s widely accepted that the Chicago 7, and the thousands who protested with them, hastened the end of the war. But at the time they were called unpatriotic, un-American, overly educated, spoiled, weak. They were anything but weak. They risked their lives, they risked 10 years in federal prison for their beliefs.
Q: January 6 this year was like a dark mirror image of the Chicago protests.
A: It sure was. Not just Donald Trump, but Rudy Giuliani and others stood at microphones and did exactly what the Chicago 7 were on trial for doing. But the January 6th people were insurgents; I’m not sure it’s right to call them protesters. There’s a big difference between protesting and attacking. The protesters in 1968 Chicago weren’t there to do any violence. They wanted to protest near the Convention Center so that their protests would be on camera. The violence started because of the police and the National Guard.
Q: After all your exposure to Washington with “West Wing” and “Chicago 7,” does anything shock you?
A: Almost everything these days shocks me. What shocks me most is how weak our congressmen and senators are; they won’t do the right thing. Of course I’m shocked by the last four years of life in America under Donald Trump. I’m shocked by the lying, the gaslighting. The easiest thing in the world is for one parent to identify with another parent. No matter who you are, you think ‘I’m a parent, and if you’re a parent, I know a lot about you.’ That was shattered when we started separating families at the border, taking kids from their parents.
Q: In the film, William Kunstler says, “There’s no such thing as a political trial.” But the movie makes clear, there are political trials.
A: That’s right, and it shocked Kunstler. It was a five-and-a-half-month trial, so we couldn’t cover everything in the film. But Kunstler became undone during this trial for exactly that reason. He thought juries may get it wrong from time to time, but in a courtroom — with equality, justice, the rules and the protections — things work the way they’re supposed to. But they didn’t in this courtroom, at all. That reflects how we’ve all felt in the last four years, that nothing was working the way it was supposed to.
Q: There are so many parallels between now and 1968. Is history cyclical, or are we still fighting the same 50-year-old battles?
A: I think we’re all asking that question. Some people say we boomeranged back. Others say nope, it never stopped being 1968, you just didn’t see it.
Q: During the Chicago 1968 convention, my grandparents blamed protesters for the violence and applauded the Chicago cops.
A: It’s partly how media covered it — also generational. Grandparents were frightened by unrest in the streets by people whose music they don’t understand, whose clothes and lifestyle they don’t understand. They want the comfort of the America they grew up in. They were looking at young kids who were totally unlike they were when they were young. The same is true now, whether it’s Black Lives Matter or the Women’s March or the ephemeral thing called antifa. People get scared of change: ‘They’re gonna destroy the suburbs.’ We don’t have to say who ‘they’ are, and we don’t have to say what we mean by ‘suburbs.’
Q: The film is so well-written and directed, with great artisan work, but in many ways it’s an actors’ film.
A: They were tremendous and a great group of people to work with. Nobody got rich doing this; I think they were paid in coupons. Many of them are used to starring in their own movies and not being part of an ensemble. I thought that might be a problem. It wasn’t. They were there for each other and they were there for the story.
Q: Despite the anger, turmoil and injustice, it’s an optimistic film.
A: It is optimistic; I can’t help it, it’s my nature. I wanted to end on an upbeat note. Thank God the eight members of the Chicago 7 had the courage that allowed their movie to end on an upbeat note.