Aaron Sorkin has seen a lot over more than 30 years in Hollywood, but even he couldn’t have predicted how neatly a Vietnam War-era film would fit the political climate of 2020.
The Trial of the Chicago 7, the second movie directed by the famed screenwriter, follows the Vietnam War protesters who were accused of inciting riots at the 1968 Democratic Convention. The film has been nominated for six Academy Awards, including for Sorkin’s screenplay, and represents Netflix’s latest shot at the industry’s top prize.
The movie got a boost on Sunday by taking the best-ensemble prize at the Screen Actors Guild Awards, marking the first time a streaming service has won that recognition.
Reflecting earlier on the film, which took about 14 years to make from conception to completion, Sorkin marveled at how little things have changed in the half-century since Tom Hayden, Abbie Hoffman, Bobby Seale and the others went on trial for their roles in the riots. The antiracism movement of last summer helped audiences connect with its message about the importance of protest in a democracy, he said.
“We thought the movie was plenty relevant last winter when we were making it,” Sorkin, 59, said in a phone interview from his home in Los Angeles. “We didn’t need it to get more relevant, but it did, obviously. I’ve been asked a lot if I changed the script to reflect events in the world. And I didn’t ever. The world changed to reflect the script.”
The idea for the movie came from Oscar-winning director Steven Spielberg, who has made a few of his own historical pictures, including Lincoln. He called Sorkin, the creator of the TV series The West Wing, over to his house on a Saturday morning in 2006 and said he wanted to make a movie about the Chicago Seven. Sorkin enthusiastically agreed to write it, without admitting he didn’t know what Spielberg was talking about.
“I left his house, called my father and asked who the Chicago Seven were,” Sorkin recalled.
The Chicago Seven (there were initially eight) were from different factions of the antiwar movement that rallied thousands of young people to come to Chicago in the summer of 1968 to protest the Democratic Party’s expected nomination of Vice President Hubert Humphrey to succeed President Lyndon Johnson. They were met by 12,000 Chicago policemen, 5,600 members of the Illinois National Guard and 5,000 U.S. Army soldiers.
The trial began more than a year later, pressed by President Richard Nixon’s Justice Department. Sorkin did some firsthand research through conversations with Hayden, a leader of Students for a Democratic Society at the University of Michigan in the 1960s. Hayden, who’s played by Eddie Redmayne, gave Sorkin a sense of the tension between himself and Hoffman, a prominent antiwar activist who is played in the film by Sacha Baron Cohen. Hoffman took his own life in 1989. Hayden, who had a long career in California politics later and was married for 17 years to actress Jane Fonda, died in 2016 after a lengthy illness.
The drama between the two became an important part of the script, along with the police confrontation early in the film and the courtroom fireworks, after Sorkin dropped the notion of turning the story into a Broadway musical or play. He rewrote the screenplay dozens of times and the film went through numerous iterations, first with Spielberg set to direct, then with different actors including Seth Rogen and Dane Cook, before eventually going into production at ViacomCBS Inc.’s Paramount Pictures with the current cast and Sorkin as director.
Last spring, it was clear the coronavirus was going to disrupt Paramount’s plans for a theatrical release. Market research indicated the first customers to come back to theaters would be people who thought Covid-19 was a hoax. And they might not have been sympathetic to the film’s message, studio Chairman Jim Gianopulos and the filmmakers agreed. “We didn’t have much confidence the Idaho militia was going to show up opening weekend,” said Sorkin, who won an Oscar in 2011 for adapting the Facebook story The Social Network to the big screen.
Tyler Thompson, a producer at Cross Creek Pictures who worked with Sorkin on the movie, said the transition to streaming went smoothly and may ultimately have been a good thing. The film cost about $35 million to make and would have eaten up a similar amount in marketing. Netflix bought the picture for $56 million and released it to home audiences on 16 October.
“It’s interesting to watch the Netflix big machine,” Thompson said. “They reach 600 million people. It’s pretty fantastic, to say the least. It was definitely a lifeboat that was an unlikely possibility, but they saw what we saw.”
Because Netflix doesn’t routinely disclose viewer numbers, it’s not clear how popular the film was. The streaming giant’s management touted its good fortune in picking up the film on an earnings call. It’s one of eight movies vying for the best-picture Oscar.
But for the producers to receive that same $56 million from a theatrical release, The Trial of the Chicago 7 would have had to generate almost $150 million in ticket sales, on par with the performance of Wonder Woman 1984.
Sorkin, who also wrote the screenplay for the hit courtroom drama A Few Good Men, said that while he thinks some aspects of moviegoing may be permanently changed because of Covid-19, he still wants his pictures shown theatrically when the pandemic is over. He just started production on a new film, “Being the Ricardos,” a biopic about Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz.
“I really do think we’re going to have our cake and eat it, too,” Sorkin said. “I think that people are going to go back to the movies. I think we’re going to have the convenience of being able to watch a feature at home.”