Aaron Sorkin Sets Sophomore Directing Gig With 'The Trial of the Chicago 7'

Sacha Baron Cohen is expected to star, presumably as Yippie counterculture icon Abbie Hoffman.

Aaron Sorkin The Social Network
Columbia Pictures

An old Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network) project is coming full circle with the latest announcement of the acclaimed screenwriter’s next effort. The Trial of the Chicago 7 has been in development hell for a long time, but Variety has now announced that Sorkin will board the film as director. What’s more, he has apparently set his sights on Sacha Baron Cohen (Borat) to portray one of the key roles.

The film will focus on the eponymous legal proceedings that affected seven (originally eight) defendants due to their participation in anti-war protests that took place during the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Abbie Hoffman (presumably being played by Cohen), Jerry Rubin, David Dellinger, Tom Hayden, Rennie Davis, John Froines, Lee Weiner, and Bobby Seale were taken to federal court, although Seale eventually had his trial severed.

The case, which lasted months, variously included testimonies from renowned leftist figures such as singer Phil Ochs, poet Allen Ginsberg, and civil rights activist Reverend Jesse Jackson. Finally, after a series of convictions and reversals, the ones remaining who were not entirely acquitted were found guilty of certain charges. However, they did not serve jail time or pay fines and ultimately all convictions were overturned on appeal.

The story of the Chicago 7 is a massive activist event that speaks to the knotty subject of political censorship. The Trial of the Chicago 7 wouldn’t even be the first time that the incident has been immortalized on screen. In fact, the setting frequently proves popular for direct reimaginings as well as a number of looser, inspired projects.

Variety notes that Sorkin’s film is based on Brett Morgen’s 2007 documentary Chicago 10, which blends archival footage from the 1960s with animation sequences borne out of the recorded transcripts from the trial. The BBC and HBO have produced docudramas about the protests and court proceedings as well (both of them co-starring Robert Loggia as one of the defendants, interestingly enough): 1970’s The Chicago Conspiracy Trial and 1987’s Conspiracy: The Trial of the Chicago 8 respectively.

Ochs’ own documentary, Phil Ochs: There but for Fortune, incorporates interviews with Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin alongside historical segments about Ochs’ activism. Another that partly touches on the trial is William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe, about the legendary defense attorney of the title.

In the realm of fiction, Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin reconfigured the trials into Vladimir et Rosa. Vincent D’Onofrio performed as Hoffman in a film about his life called Steal This Movie. Most recently, Pinchas Perry made the feature courtroom drama The Chicago 8.

The journey that Sorkin’s Chicago 7 movie has made over the years is, in and of itself, long and arduous, too. The Trial of the Chicago 7 has been gestating for over a decade as one of Steven Spielberg‘s many unrealized projects.

Sorkin had penned the initial script back in 2007 when was slated to be directed by Spielberg. Big-name celebrities in the vein of Will Smith were on the docket to star in the biographical vehicle. There were plans to speak to Heath Ledger about appearing as one of the leads. Baron Cohen himself was actually a favorite to play Hoffman at the time.

The Writers Guild of America strike eventually delayed and finally suspended Spielberg’s directorial involvement in The Trial of the Chicago 7, though. It was then revived with Paul Greengrass in the director’s chair in 2013, but plans for the film fell through again when budgetary concerns arose.

Now that Sorkin himself has had a taste of helming features in the wake of his debut, Molly’s Game, we can rest easy that his effort to bring another cutting real-life story to screens everywhere is in reasonably good hands. Judging from his iconic scripts alone — of which there are many — Sorkin knows how to write a good story. Furthermore, while they can often be based on something factual, they always seem to transcend basic biopic conventions.

Sorkin entertains with his rapid-fire dialogue and penchant for high-stakes drama, even in the most mundane of situations. His “walk and talk” signature writing style places significance on what could be random filler moments in movies and TV. And despite the fact that his characters talk a ton while stalking hallways, Sorkin does a good job of making sure that each word matters.

The courtroom drama is Sorkin’s tried and true ballpark. After all, he broke out as a feature film scribe with the excellent A Few Good Men. Would Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson be as engrossing in their beef without Sorkin’s cracking screenplay? Moreover, the deposition scenes in both The Social Network and The Newsroom provide some stellar narrative set pieces in either of those projects. Clearly, Sorkin even makes people sitting in a room extraordinarily intriguing.

He has showcased a similar tendency when it comes to Molly’s Game as he gets behind the camera. Sorkin has luck on his side with the talents of Jessica Chastain and Idris Elba, among others, at his disposal. Plus, he obviously knows the ins and outs of his own script. In turn, Sorkin weaves a persistently tense and intermittently amusing drama that oozes personality.

Molly’s Game isn’t perfect by any means. The movie’s final edit runs at 140 minutes, which could have been pared down for a sharper look at Molly Bloom’s predicament. This is especially so when there are very few opportunities for the unrelenting Sorkin dialogue to take a breather in the script. Still, the film makes for a gloriously fun and satisfying ride that, like past Sorkin affairs, develops a sense of mythology and critique of the subject at its center.

I don’t doubt that Sorkin could bring that same energy to The Trial of the Chicago 7. The event that spawned the phrase “The whole world is watching” is the right fit for this politically minded filmmaker. As always, I don’t think we can ever expect the cold hard facts from a Sorkin movie. That said, he would most likely knock it out of the park while having something profound to say, nevertheless.

Often chugging tea and thinking about horror movies. Curator of daily stuff and things here at Film School Rejects.