Thursday, October 15, 2020

Aaron Sorkin finally meets 'The Chicago 7' and mostly makes the best of it

It took him 14 years to do it, but writer/director Aaron Sorkin finally has brought "The Trial of the Chicago 7" to movie life, as many will see when the absorbing, if talkative drama starts streaming Friday on Netflix.

Director/writer Sorkin gets into focus.
During a virtual press conference a few days ago, Sorkin simplified how he was summoned by Steven Spielberg to consider writing the screenplay for the politically motivated legal doings that followed the violent, 1968 clashes between Chicago police and Vietnam War protestors. "It was in 2006 when I was asked to go over to Steven's house one Saturday morning and, just to be clear, that is uncommon. I do not hang out with Spielberg," Sorkin said. 

"Anyway, I told Steven that making a movie about the trial of the Chicago 7 was a great concept. Then, as soon as I left, I called my father and asked him who they were because I never had heard of the Chicago 7. I just wanted to make a movie with Steven Spielberg."

After reading a dozen or so "good books" on the subject, the "21,000-page trial transcript" and, "most critically," had several conversations with activist Tom Hayden (since deceased), Sorkin finally turned in his screenplay almost two years later. The next day, a writer's strike ensued and, along with the necessity to fulfill other commitments, Sorkin explained, "that was the beginning of the film being kicked down the road for a while."

"Then two things happened at once," the filmmaker continued. "One was that Donald Trump was elected president, and he was holding big rallies and being nostalgic for (violence that occurred in) 1968. The other was that, by then, I had directed my first film ("Molly's Game"), so Steven called and said, 'Let's do the movie now. You can direct, too.'"

Four of the 7: Sharp, Strong, Lynch, and Cohen.
Considering the current political climate, the rest really did become history, and now writer AND director Sorkin unveils a triple-threat story. "It all kind of organized that way in my head," he said. "There was the courtroom drama, the evolution of the riot and how a peaceful protest turned into a violent clash with police and guardsmen and, thirdly, the personal story between Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) and Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen), two guys on the same side who can't stand each other, with each thinking the other is doing harm to the movement."

From a critical standpoint, the meat of the film certainly does become the Hayden/Hoffman conflict, especially for those of us old enough to recognize and remember the over-amplified events in the early going. 

Redmayne and Cohen, who Sorkin says was the first actor cast by Spielberg, do stand out in critical moments (even if Cohen's extreme height took me right out of the movie, particularly when opposite his Yippie pal, the tiny Jerry Rubin, played by a more marvelously cast Jeremy Strong).

Sorkin admirally finds ample time for his other key players, too, including John Carroll Lynch (as David Dellinger), Alex Sharp (Rennie Davis), Joseph Gordon-Levitt (federal prosecutor Richard Schultz) and almost unrecognizable Oscar-winner Mark Rylance, making defense lawyer William Kuntzler sound and look a lot more personable than press coverage did 50 years ago.

Perhaps the highlight of Sorkin's piece, though, is the ongoing court dialogue between defendant Black Panther Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) and controversial Judge Julius "no relation to Abbie" Hoffman (Frank Langella). 

Both actors truly deliver words, which Sorkin claims were lifted right out of transcripts and never edited, with passion, substance and anger. It's extremely crazy stuff now being repeated in even crazier times. 

("The Trial of the Chicago 7" is playing exclusively on the big screen at the Cedar Lee Theater in Cleveland Heights.)

Rated "R" by MPAA: language throughout, some violence, bloody images and drug use; 2:10; $ $ $ and 1/2 out of $5

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