In 'Chicago 7,' Aaron Sorkin Sees Chilling Parallels Between '68 Summer And Today | Connecticut Public Radio
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In 'Chicago 7,' Aaron Sorkin Sees Chilling Parallels Between '68 Summer And Today

Nov 2, 2020

Nineteen sixty eight was a year of upheaval in America. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy had been assassinated, and the country was embroiled in protests over the war in Vietnam.

That summer, several prominent anti-war activists, including Abbie Hoffman and Tom Hayden, were accused of crossing state lines and conspiring to start a riot at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. The trial that followed transfixed the nation.

West Wing creator Aaron Sorkin recreates the activists' trial in his new Netflix film, The Trial of the Chicago 7. He says this story is "shockingly, chillingly relevant" — and points to parallels between the unrest in Chicago in 1968 and the political divisions of today.

"I saw a photograph [of counter-protesters] from 1969, when the trial was starting," Sorkin says. "Three of the signs that I saw said: 'America, Love It or Leave It,' 'What About White Civil Rights?' and 'Lock Them Up.' "

Sorkin notes that those signs — and the broader demonization of the protesters — recalls President Trump's reaction to the Black Lives Matter demonstrations of 2020.

"We thought the film was plenty relevant last winter when we were making it. We didn't need it to get more relevant, but it did," Sorkin says.


Interview Highlights

On what made him want to tell the story of the Chicago Seven

Fourteen years ago, [Steven Spielberg told me] he wanted to make a movie about the Chicago Seven. And I said, "That's a great idea. That would make a great movie. Count me in and sign me up!"And I walked out of his house, called my father, and asked him who the Chicago Seven were. I didn't have any idea what Steven was talking about. I was just saying yes to working with Steven Spielberg the way literally any writer would.

So then I had research to do, obviously. I read about a dozen good books on the subject, a number of them written by members of the Chicago Seven. And there's a 21,000 page trial transcript. But the most critical part of the research was the time I got to spend with Tom Hayden, who was still alive at the time. ... And he gave me an insight that I would not have been able to get from those books or from the transcript.

On why the film feels particularly relevant now

When suddenly Donald Trump was at rallies, when a protester in the back would shout something and he'd be getting dragged out and Trump would start reminiscing about the good old days when we'd carry that guy out of here on a stretcher, and I'd like to punch him right in the face and beat the crap out of him. When protest was being demonized. Whether it was an athlete kneeling during the national anthem, that's what was going on that made Steven finally say, "OK, the time to make this movie is now." ...

With the shootings of Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery and [the death of] George Floyd, the protests and protesters being met by, again, tear gas and nightsticks and calls from the government that they're anti-American, that they're anarchists, that they're communists — when in fact, they're patriots.

On portraying Judge Julius Hoffman, who demonstrates disdain for the defendants

He was awful — more awful than I made him just because I couldn't show you five and a half months of trial. He was either in the tank for the prosecution or experiencing early senility or some combination of both. But most likely what it was, and you see this again today ... was he felt that he was the guardian of the America of the '50s or at least the America in his imagination, that the '50s were a quieter, whiter time without all this crazy psychedelic music, and these kids and their long hair and the clothes protesting things that he thought he was the last line of defense against these guys, and he was going to put them away and teach them a lesson.

Filmmaker Aaron Sorkin isn't bothered by critics who say his writing style is too idealistic. "I get to earn a living doing exactly what I love doing," he says.
Niko Tavernise / Netflix

On a common criticism that his writing style is too idealistic

Honest to God, the thing that I think about the most is that I get to earn a living doing exactly what I love doing and what you're talking about, those are pretty glamorous problems, that critics talk about me in a certain way. When I was writing my first play, A Few Good Men on cocktail napkins at the bar I was working at, and you had told me that my problem was going to be the way critics talked about my writing, I would have hugged you and said, "Really? There's going to be a day when I'm reviewed by somebody?" I know exactly what you're talking about, but it's been going on for a while, so I'm used to it.

On whether 2020 has made him less of an idealistic writer and thinker

I do like writing idealistically and optimistically. As an audience member I like cynical things, gritty things. I'm fine with things that don't have a happy ending. But as a writer, I like writing the kinds of movies that made me want to write movies, and those were usually movies that put a lump in my throat, gave me a goosebump experience, just made me feel two inches taller after I had watched it. I like doing that. There have been a couple of exceptions along the way and there'll probably be a couple of exceptions in my future. I like it when the orchestra comes in.

On writing about Trump-era politics for the screen

There's no such thing as an interesting character who doesn't have a conscience. If you take Richard III's conscience away from him, we're not interested in that play. - Aaron Sorkin

I've just, in the last week, passed on two different things that would involve the character of Donald Trump. ... Believe me, screenwriters, playwrights, television writers, we're going to be writing a lot about these last four years. But I predict that — The Comey Rule notwithstanding — that you will seldom see [a fictionalized version of] Donald Trump as anything but an off-screen character. ... Having him as a character in a story with real people is very difficult, because it's implausible. It's very hard to not make him like Alec Baldwin on SNL because, as I say, he is implausible. Also, you can write about heroes and villains or anti-heroes like Mark Zuckerberg, but there's no such thing as an interesting character who doesn't have a conscience. If you take Richard III's conscience away from him, we're not interested in that play.

Ann Marie Baldonado and Seth Kelley produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Meghan Sullivan adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2020 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Our guest, Aaron Sorkin, is well known for creating the TV series "The West Wing" and writing the screenplay for the film "The Social Network." He wrote and directed the new film "The Trial Of The Chicago 7," which is streaming on Netflix. Sorkin spoke with our guest interviewer Sam Sanders. Sam is a new voice on FRESH AIR, but he's familiar to a lot of NPR listeners because he hosts the NPR show and podcast It's Been a Minute and, before that, was one of the original hosts of the NPR Politics Podcast.

We're fans of Sam's. And as you'll hear, he's a fan of Sorkin. We think you'll enjoy this interview. Here's Sam to introduce it.

SAM SANDERS, BYLINE: For decades now, Aaron Sorkin has shaped the way we think about power. He wrote the film "A Few Good Men," the NBC drama "The West Wing," the Academy Award-winning movie "The Social Network" all about Facebook - TV and movies that paint a very particular picture of what it means to wield power, whether you're a president or the head of a big tech company or a high-ranking Marine.

Aaron Sorkin is back in 2020 with another study in power - in the power of protests. Sorkin's new Netflix film is called "The Trial Of The Chicago 7." It tells a story of the infamous 1969 trial of some of the men who helped organize the anti-war and countercultural protests at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. These protests turned to riots in a year full of civil unrest. And they came to represent so many of the deep divides in the nation at that time. These men, the Chicago 7 - they were charged by the U.S. government with crossing state lines with the intent of inciting a riot.

Sorkin's film is a meditation on progressive politics and government overreach and the role of protest in civic life. It is also a classic courtroom drama. Here's a scene from the start of the film. It's got Bobby Seale, co-founder of the Black Panthers. He is one of the men on trial. And he's trying to represent himself because his lawyer is in the hospital. Seale is played by Yahya Abdul-Mateen. You'll also hear Frank Langella as the judge and Mark Rylance as a lawyer for the other defendants.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7")

YAHYA ABDUL-MATEEN II: (As Bobby Seale) I, Bobby G. Seale, have a motion pro se to defend myself. I'd like to invoke the precedent of Adams v. U.S. ex. rel. McCann, where the Supreme Court...

FRANK LANGELLA: (As Judge Julius Hoffman) All right, that's enough. Where are you learning these things? Does your young friend, Mr. Hampton, have a background in law?

MARK RYLANCE: (As William Kunstler) Your Honor, the other defendants would like to join in Mr. Seale's motion.

LANGELLA: (As Judge Julius Hoffman) Are you now speaking on behalf of Mr. Seale?

RYLANCE: (As William Kunstler) No, Your Honor. I'm speaking on behalf of the other defendants.

LANGELLA: (As Judge Julius Hoffman) You're standing right next to him. Why don't you just represent him?

RYLANCE: (As William Kunstler) Because I'm not his lawyer, sir. If I understand, Mr. Seale, this last month and a half - and I believe I have - he is not represented by counsel.

LANGELLA: (As Judge Julian Hoffman) Overruled.

ABDUL-MATEEN: (As Bobby Seale) I am being denied right now...

LANGELLA: (As Judge Julian Hoffman) Mr. Seale...

ABDUL-MATEEN: (As Bobby Seale) ...My constitutional right...

LANGELLA: (As Judge Julian Hoffman) Will you be quiet? Will you...

ABDUL-MATEEN: (As Bobby Seale) ...For legal representation.

LANGELLA: (As Judge Julian Hoffman) Will you be quiet? You have lawyers to speak for you.

RYLANCE: (As William Kunstler) No, he doesn't.

SANDERS: I spoke to Aaron Sorkin just after his film came out. He was at his home in Los Angeles.

This interview means a lot to me personally. I'm not going to give you too much of my back story. But I do want to fangirl for just a second. I was in college in undergrad in the early to mid-2000s. And I was a political science major. And I remember in undergrad getting together with other poli-sci majors and professors in the student center at the University of the Incarnate Word to watch "The West Wing." And you were a big deal in my coming of age, you know, when it comes to how I see politics as an adult in this country. So thanks.

AARON SORKIN: Well, thank you. That really means a lot to me. I appreciate it.

SANDERS: I mean, my poli-sci professor, Dr. Lydia Andrade, loved "The West Wing" so much, she had us write papers about it.

SORKIN: You know, I have to tell you this is just funny because I just got done doing an interview where I said the following - you know, it's not like everyone in "The West Wing" audience was a poli-sci major. And here I am...

(LAUGHTER)

SANDERS: It turns out a lot of them were.

SORKIN: Damn it (laughter).

SANDERS: I know. I know. Anyways, we'll talk more about that later. But I want to talk about your latest work, your newest movie, "The Chicago 7." I watched it this week. And I was thinking throughout watching the film, at this stage of your career, you can make a movie or a TV show or a whatever about whatever you want to talk about. What made you want to tell this story?

SORKIN: It started 14 years ago in 2006. On a Saturday morning, I was asked to come over to Steven Spielberg's house. Just to be very clear, that's uncommon, OK? It's not like I hang out with Spielberg, and he was saying, come on over - we'll watch the game together. But what he said was that he wanted to make a movie about the Chicago 7. And I said that's a great idea. That would make a great movie. Count me in. Sign me up. And I walk out of his house, called my father and asked him who the Chicago 7 were.

SANDERS: Wow.

SORKIN: I didn't have any idea what Steven was talking about. I was just saying yes to working with Steven Spielberg the way literally any writer would. So then I had research to do, obviously. I read about a dozen good books on the subject, a number of them written by members of the Chicago 7. There's a 21,000-page trial transcript. But the most critical part of the research was the time I got to spend with Tom Hayden, who was still alive at the time. He passed away about four years ago. But he was still alive at the time. And he gave me an insight that I would not have been able to get from those books or from the transcript.

SANDERS: What was the biggest, most useful note he gave you?

SORKIN: The biggest thing was that it was really easy to see the friction between Tom and Abbie Hoffman. That lingered in Tom. That part of it was just that he felt like Abbie Hoffman didn't deserve to be the star of the '60s that he became. And part of it was that he felt that Abbie Hoffman and Abbie's gang, the Yippies, did lasting damage to the cause that they were both into. And just him showing me that every day when we'd be together led me to what I think was the most important part of the film.

The - listen. After all the research and after all the pacing around and climbing the walls, trying to figure out, you know, what story am I telling? How should I tell it? - it organized itself into three stories that I was going to tell at once. One was the courtroom drama. One was the evolution of the riot. How did what was supposed to be a peaceful protest devolve into such a violent clash with the police and with the National Guard? But the third was the more personal story, the friction between Tom and Abbie, two guys who plainly can't stand each other, who are on the same side, want the same thing, but they each think the other is doing damage to the cause.

SANDERS: So, you know, it's funny to hear you say that after Spielberg asked you to make a film about the Chicago 7, you had to call your dad and ask him what that was. You know, I realized when they asked me to talk with you about this film, I didn't know what it is, either. And I have had conversations on my show about '68, about the DNC and about the protest. What is it about the Chicago 7 in this case that makes so many Americans forget it ever happened?

SORKIN: You know, that's a great question. And this incident, I think, is not the only serious cultural and legal moment in our history that has been forgotten. But there are people of a certain age - and I hear from them every day - who certainly have not forgotten Chicago in 1968 or the trial of '69 or '70. I'll hear from people who were there who still have stitches in their forehead from being there. I'll hear from people who were 14 years old and watching it on TV. And somehow, that's what gave them, you know, an intense sense of justice and right and wrong. So there are people who remember it well, but you and I aren't among them. And I think that...

SANDERS: (Laughter).

SORKIN: ...There are, you know, tens, if not hundreds of millions of others who just don't know that this happened.

SANDERS: You know, so much of the film and this case, it litigates 1968. And it litigates some of the big issues and emotions present in that year. And all throughout this year, people have been drawing so many comparisons between 2020 and 1968. And your film highlights some of those parallels as well - the protests, the racial unrest, part of the government calling for law and order, political anger and division everywhere. How timely was it for this movie to come out this year, when it seems like we're living in a new version of 1968?

SORKIN: You know, when I started out back 14 years ago, it first started as a, you know, hey, I get to work with Steven Spielberg. That's one...

SANDERS: Yeah.

SORKIN: ...Doing this. Then after - the research turned into, this is a great story. There's a chance here to write a good screenplay that could be a good movie. It's a great story. And it's a story I've never heard before. It went from that to starting to become shockingly, chillingly relevant when, suddenly, Donald Trump was at rallies - you know, when a protester in the back would shout something and he'd be getting dragged out, and Trump would start reminiscing about the good old days when we'd carry that guy out of here on a stretcher and I'd like to punch him right in the face and beat the crap out of him - when protest was being demonized, you know, whether it was an athlete kneeling during the national anthem.

That's what was going on that made Steven finally say, OK, the time to make this movie is now. We thought the film was plenty relevant last winter when we were making it. We didn't need it to get more relevant, but it did, you know, with the shootings of Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd and the protests - protesters being met by, again, tear gas and nightsticks and calls from the government that they're anti-American, that they're anarchists, that they're communists, when, in fact, they're patriots.

GROSS: We're listening to the conversation our guest interviewer Sam Sanders recorded with screenwriter and director Aaron Sorkin. Sam is the host of the NPR show It's Been A Minute. Sorkin wrote and directed the new Netflix film "The Trial Of The Chicago 7." We'll hear more of their interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DANIEL PEMBERTON'S "BLOOD ON THE STREETS")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with our interview with Aaron Sorkin. He wrote and directed the new Netflix film "The Trial Of The Chicago 7." It dramatizes the story of the anti-war activists charged with crossing state lines and conspiring to riot at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Sorkin spoke to our guest interviewer Sam Sanders, host of the NPR show It's Been A Minute.

SANDERS: The Chicago Seven was actually eight. The eighth was Bobby Seale, who is played by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II. And there was a moment in the movie that happens to his character that I just could not see happening today and hope would not happen today. So tell me if I'm giving away too much. But to set up this scene - Seale, the Black Panther leader, he is at first on trial with the seven. But eventually, he gets another trial after it's made clear that he wasn't, like, one of the guys that put it together.

But before they give him a new trial and he gets to leave this one, he has to sit there for a very long time without his own lawyer present. And there's this scene where after he won't shut up and stop telling the court that he has no attorney that the judge in this case has him bound and gagged. And I'm - I just - I mean, that is - I don't know. I know that Black men are still mistreated in courts today. But I pray to God that couldn't happen today.

SORKIN: It's the most notorious moment from the trial. You know, I've been asked, did that really happen? Absolutely, it did. I wouldn't make up something like that. Could it happen today? You and I are saying no way for the exact same reason. We just can't imagine it happening. But how many things have happened that we couldn't imagine happening? You know, we also couldn't imagine people who work at the White House just ignoring a congressional subpoena. So I'm not sure whether, like a rubber band, you know, we got to 2020 and we just snapped back to 1968 or whether not as much changed as we thought had changed, and that Trump was able to just kind of take a thin Band-Aid off.

SANDERS: You know, there's this moment where before he reenters the courtroom literally bound and gagged, the judge sends him away with the guards. And what does the judge say to them?

SORKIN: Take him away. And deal with him as he should be dealt with.

SANDERS: Wow. Was it - I kept thinking in that moment, I was like, was this judge really that awful? Or did Aaron Sorkin make him that awful in this movie? How bad was the judge?

SORKIN: He was awful, more awful than I made him just because I couldn't show you 5 1/2 months of...

SANDERS: Wow.

SORKIN: ...Of trial. But he was - listen; he was either in the tank for the prosecution or experiencing early senility or some combination of both. But most likely what it was - and you see this again today. What it was was he felt that he was the guardian of the America of the '50s, or at least the America in his imagination (laughter) that the '50s were - a quieter, whiter time without all this crazy, psychedelic music and these kids and their long hair and the clothes protesting things, that he thought he was the last line of defense against these guys. And he was going to put them away and teach them a lesson.

SANDERS: It's so funny to hear you talk about, you know, defending the '50s and this version of whiteness. There are echoes of that in our conversation right now about the suburbs and who will protect them. So much of this stuff is just still happening right now.

SORKIN: Yeah.

SANDERS: I am interested in how the scene came together in which Yahya Abdul-Mateen II is playing Bobby Seale and is, himself, bound and gagged in a courtroom. How hard was that scene to shoot? You were the director.

SORKIN: I'll tell you, there was one shooting day in which what we had to get was a couple of - were a couple of dozen very, very tight shots of Bobby's ankle, of Bobby's wrist, you know, of a hand shoving him back in the chairs - very, very tight shots that I would ultimately be cutting together with the stuff happening - you know, with just the silence in the courtroom and everyone staring at the judge. That day, that shooting day, just through a grim coincidence of scheduling, was the 50th anniversary of what happened to Fred Hampton.

SANDERS: Yeah.

SORKIN: And so that day - it was always a very joyful set, just a lot of laughing, a lot of high-fiving. People were into what we were doing. But that day, that one particular day, was much more sober and somber. And I would - in the second half of the day, when we were shooting that scene where Bobby is getting shackled and gagged and strapped with those leather belts to the chair...

SANDERS: Yeah.

SORKIN: ...I started going to Yahya after every take, after every two takes, and just to say, you OK? How are you doing? And he would say, yeah. I'm good. Let's keep going. Let's keep going. You know, and I would tell him, look, you know, this is just a very tight shot of your ankle. If you want to take your brain out of this one, it's fine. We just need your - no, no, no. You know, he would keep playing the scene.

And it just occurred to me, listen; the guy's a professional actor. It's possible he doesn't - he wants to feel like this, that he doesn't want the director making sure he's OK, that, you know, he wants to feel these four white extras, who are playing U.S. marshals, manhandling him, chaining him up. So that's what that day was like. But, you know, I can tell you that we were all suddenly very conscious of the fact that what was going on Yahya's side of the camera he was experiencing differently than I was, I guess is the best way to put it.

SANDERS: For sure. You know, it's interesting to think about Yahya having to do that scene. Part of me is like, oh, yeah. He can handle it. He filmed "Watchmen." He can do anything (laughter).

SORKIN: He can. But I'll tell you that he would, in between takes - you know, we're back in the courtroom now. In between takes, in between setups, when everybody else would, you know, group up and laughing and that kind of thing, Yahya would just kind of separate himself a little just by a few feet because he wasn't part of that group, didn't want to be yukking it up with them. You know, he's the one who had to be put back in a jail cell every night. He wasn't out on bail.

And I happened to notice when we were shooting his first scene - and we shot the movie out of order, so this was well into the shoot. When we were shooting his first scene where, you know, we introduce all the characters, all of - all eight of the Chicago 7 - and that night shooting that scene, he was in a great mood. And he was the one high-fiving. And he was a leader. And he's making everybody laugh. And I turn to the script supervisor, and I just happened to mention that, you know? Look at Yahya. He's really having fun tonight. And she pointed out the obvious - this is the only scene in the movie where he's a free man. In every other scene in the film, he is in handcuffs (laughter). He's tied to a chair.

SANDERS: Yeah, yeah.

SORKIN: He's not being listened to by the judge. He's being denied his constitutional rights. And so you know, Yahya, obviously, carried that around with him and gave the performance that you saw.

GROSS: We're listening to the conversation our guest interviewer Sam Sanders recorded with screenwriter and director Aaron Sorkin. Sam is the host of the NPR show It's Been A Minute. Sorkin wrote and directed the new Netflix film "The Trial Of The Chicago 7." After a break, they'll talk more about the film and how Sorkin thinks Hollywood will portray the Trump era. And Ken Tucker will review new music by Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder and The Pretenders. I'm Terry Gross. And this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF PAUL SHAW QUINTET'S "PEEKABOO")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with more of the conversation between Aaron Sorkin and our guest interviewer Sam Sanders, host of the NPR show It's Been A Minute. Sorkin won an Oscar for his screenplay for "The Social Network," a film about the early days of Facebook. And he won many Emmys for "The West Wing," just one of the TV shows he's created. Sorkin wrote and directed the new film "The Trial of the Chicago 7," which is streaming on Netflix. It dramatizes the story of the group of anti-war activists charged with conspiracy and crossing state lines to incite a riot at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

Here's another scene from the film. At this point, the trial has been going on for months. After a particularly tough day in court, the defendants are fighting over who should testify on behalf of the group. Abbie Hoffman is played by Sacha Baron Cohen. And Tom Hayden is played by Eddie Redmayne.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7")

SACHA BARON COHEN: (As Abbie Hoffman) What's your problem with me, Hayden?

EDDIE REDMAYNE: (As Tom Hayden) I really wish people would stop asking me that question.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) They wouldn't want us to fight...

COHEN: (As Abbie Hoffman) Answer it one time.

REDMAYNE: (As Tom Hayden) All right. My problem is, for the next 50 years, when people think of progressive politics, they're going to think of you. They're going to think of you and your idiot followers passing out daisies to soldiers and trying to levitate the Pentagon. So they're not going to think of equality or justice. They're not going to think of education or poverty or progress. They're going to think of a bunch of stoned, lost, disrespectful, foul-mouthed, lawless losers. And so we'll lose elections.

COHEN: (As Abbie Hoffman) All because of me.

REDMAYNE: (As Tom Hayden) Yeah.

COHEN: (As Abbie Hoffman) And winning elections - that's the first thing on your wish list. Equality, justice, education, poverty and progress - they're second?

REDMAYNE: (As Tom Hayden) If you don't win elections, it doesn't matter what's second.

SANDERS: I want to talk about another scene in the movie that really stuck with me. It is that moment in the film when the Abbie Hoffman character clash with the Tom Hayden character over what's the best way to be progressive. And there was just this - I mean, it's beautifully peak Sorkin writing. They're all in the room, going back and forth and back and forth. And then one of them says, you only care about winning elections. And then the other one responds, if you don't win elections, it doesn't matter what's second. And it was, like, this beautiful moment that totally captured the divide among the left in '68. But it also kind of captures a divide among the left now. Why do you think the left is still having this argument?

SORKIN: Well, I understand the argument, and I understand both sides of the argument. Abbie's side of the argument, which today would be the - I guess the Bernie Sanders side of the argument. Incremental progress, slow progress doesn't do the trick, OK? Why should people who are experiencing racial injustice - why should they be satisfied with slow and steady wins the race? The other side of the argument is you will lose the race if you do anything but slow and steady. So people like me right now are saying, guys, can we have the argument about the Green New Deal? Can we have the argument about defunding the police on November 4, please?

SANDERS: What in your mind is the biggest similarity between this year and 1968?

SORKIN: The deep polarization, the deep division where one side are the real Americans and the other side are a threat to the American way of life, a leader who is creating and exploiting that division. And one side is un-American. But it's the tear gas. It's the nightsticks. It's peaceful protesters being met with violence.

I saw a photograph from 1969 when the trial was starting, a photograph of the outside of the courthouse and all the signs that people were holding up. And there were plenty of - I guess you'd call them counterprotesters - there, people who were not supporters of the Chicago 7. And I saw - three of the signs that I saw said, America, love it or leave it. What about white civil rights? And lock them up. And I told our prop master, you know, who was going to have to be making dozens of signs for that scene, those are the three I need the camera to find.

SANDERS: You know, I've also been thinking after watching this movie about what some of the biggest differences might be between 1968 and now, especially when it comes to the topic of the film. And one thing I realize - that today, the Chicago 7 would've been women. You know, when I think about who leads the protests now, the waves of protest happening across the country, it's led by women. The Black Lives Matter movement was founded by women. It is still, in large part, led by women. The energy of the resistance is really led by the energy of the Women's March. You know, if there were a Chicago 7 today, it would be women. How do you think that would make a whole trial different?

SORKIN: Well, first of all, there's no question about what you're saying, that when this is all over and we can get back to normal, we must erect a statue of a woman - OK? - leading a million other people in protest because it started the day after Trump's inauguration - right? - with the Women's March. And the silver medal goes to young people - right? - like those kids from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

So how would the trial be different? That's an interesting question. You know, look. Jerry and Abbie at least felt that it was their job during the trial, during the almost six months of their trial to every day make it clear to the judge and to the world that they don't respect this trial. You know, and they would - so they would wear judge's robes and the policemen's uniforms. And they would do goofy things. It was more of a circus than what I present in the movie - even more of a circus than what I present in the movie. So if it were - if the Chicago 7 was eight women, I don't know. I think it depends on who those eight women were. But you're right. They would be women.

SANDERS: Do you still read your reviews?

SORKIN: You know, I get sent now - "The Chicago 7" opened in theaters.

SANDERS: Theaters - what are those?

SORKIN: Yeah. I know, right? There were theaters. There were screens in, I think, 22 cities in America that it was playing on. I don't imagine there was anyone in the theater when the movie was playing. But it started playing on Netflix. And every day I get from the publicity department at Netflix about 30 or 40 reviews a day. I don't want critics to think that I'm shrugging them off at all, but you would just overdose on yourself if you read all the reviews.

SANDERS: I read a bunch of the reviews for your movie. And I noticed this thing, this very - this strange thing that a lot of people, critics who know your work, do; they do this, like, compliment but not a compliment of you and your style. You've come to be known for your very distinct style and your distinct writing and the walk-and-talks that you have in your shows and your movies. And it has become familiar to you and your work, and people love it. But, like, a few of the critics would write about that and say, yeah, it was fun and peppy and fast, but you know Sorkin.

And there was one review where the reviewer said, and this doesn't mean to disparage Mr. Sorkin, but he's never been a realist. He's too earnest, and his dialogue is too idealistic. And so these - all these critics have this way of saying, Aaron Sorkin in doing this thing that he's very good at, I don't know how I feel about it. After years of hearing that kind of - I don't even know what to call it. It's kind of a compliment and a slap in the face at the same time. Like, do you think about that - I mean, the fact that people know how you write so well that they can talk about it that way?

SORKIN: Listen - honest to God - the thing that I think about the most is that I get to earn a living doing exactly what I love doing.

SANDERS: Yeah.

SORKIN: And what you're talking about, those are pretty glamorous problems, you know, that critics talk about me in a certain way. When I was writing my first play, "A Few Good Men," on cocktail napkins at the bar I was working at - and you had told me that my problem was going to be the way critics talked about my writing, I would have hugged you and said, really? There's going to be a day when I'm reviewed by somebody? So, you know, that's - I know exactly what you're talking about. But it's been going on for a while, so I'm used to it.

SANDERS: Yeah. I do want to dig into one of the themes in your work that critics consistently notice, and that is your optimism-slash-idealism. You - and I like it, you know? That's a part of why "The West Wing" worked for so many people. It helped you still believe in politics, even if you saw that it could be messy. You've never apologized for the idealism and the optimism in your work. Has 2020 or the last few years made you reconsider the idealism? 'Cause it's been such a dark time for so many people.

SORKIN: It has not made me reconsider it.

SANDERS: OK. Tell me why.

SORKIN: I do like writing idealistically and optimistically. As an audience member, I like cynical things, gritty things.

SANDERS: Really?

SORKIN: Yeah, I'm fine with things that don't have a happy ending. But as a writer, I just - you know, I like writing the kinds of movies that made me want to write movies. And those were usually movies that put a lump in my throat, gave me the goosebump experienced, you know, just made me feel two inches taller after I'd watched it. And I like doing that. There have been a couple of exceptions along the way, and there'll probably be a couple of exceptions in my future. But I - you know, I like it when the orchestra comes in.

GROSS: We're listening to the conversation, our guest interviewer Sam Sanders recorded with screenwriter and director Aaron Sorkin. Sam is host of the NPR show It's Been a Minute. Sorkin is the creator of the TV series "The West Wing" and wrote the films "The Social Network" and "A Few Good Men." He wrote and directed the new Netflix film "The Trial Of The Chicago 7." We'll hear more of the interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to our interview with Aaron Sorkin. He wrote and directed the new Netflix film "The Trial Of The Chicago 7." He spoke with our guest interviewer Sam Sanders, host of the NPR show It's Been a Minute.

SANDERS: You know, when I think of "The West Wing" or even "The Social Network" - which is just one of my all-times - there are these people in positions of power who are able to maneuver the levers of power based on how good or bad they are, you know? So a President Bartlet - because he's a good man - can steer politics toward his will, which is greater good, and he's able to do that. And in "The Social Network," you know, Zuckerberg's character is a guy who doesn't really know what he wants or might have some bad intentions, and he steers his power towards something a little bit bad.

I think that, like, what has been made really clear for me, watching the way our politics and our social life has just seemed to devolve - it is that there are some things that can affect us negatively outside of leaders' good or bad intent. Like, even when I think about Facebook, you know, "The Social Network" helped me conceptualize and think about my large notions of what social media means and what Big Tech really is. And for a long time, I think I thought it was, like, these really powerful 12-year-old boys and what they want.

But the last year or two or three has taught me that it's bigger than that. It's about Russian interference. It is about violence and criminality across the world that's using Facebook. And it's bigger than the guy or the girl in charge who means well or means badly. And I wonder, how do we make both things fit? Because I love the way that you write and the ideas that you bring around the integrity of leadership and how powerful it can be. But the last few years have taught me that it's bigger than that.

SORKIN: It sounds like you and I have taken very similar journeys since the time that "The Social Network" came out. When I wrote "The Social Network" - your description was pretty good. It was about, like, the most antisocial guy you can imagine creating a world where he was the mayor of social life. Even that ended with the character having changed just because of his experience in those two deposition hearings. And he has changed a little bit, and the movie ends with him alone, trying to reconnect with Rooney Mara, this woman he wasn't very nice to. And just - we never know if he does or not, but he's going to sit there all night.

SANDERS: Clicking refresh - such a powerful scene. Oh, my goodness.

SORKIN: If you make part two of the movie today, that's not how it ends. But I'll bet that there's still a way (laughter) to find the uplifting ending to that movie.

SANDERS: Really? Tell me (laughter).

SORKIN: It's a movie, so there has to be a way.

(LAUGHTER)

SORKIN: There has to be a way. Somebody taking their laptop and throwing it into the ocean or something.

SANDERS: (Laughter) Yeah, yeah. Have you at all thought about how you might want to write about politics, if you want to write about politics after we've all fully absorbed the Trump era? When it comes time to reflect on that through cinema and television, do you want to be a part of that work?

SORKIN: Here's what the hardest thing about that is going to be - and I've just in the last week passed on two different things that would involve the character of Donald Trump.

SANDERS: Really?

SORKIN: Yeah. Here's what the difficult thing about that is going to be - and believe me; screenwriters, playwrights, television writers - we're going to be writing a lot about these last four years. But I predict that you will - "The Comey Rule" notwithstanding - that you will seldom see Donald Trump as anything but an offscreen character. You know, you'll see him on TV in news clips. And the reason is that he's implausible. Having him in a story with real people is very difficult because he's implausible.

It's very hard to not make him like Alec Baldwin on "SNL" because, as I say, he is implausible. Also, you can write about heroes, villains or anti-heroes like Mark Zuckerberg, but there's no such thing as an interesting character who doesn't have a conscience. If you take Richard III's conscience away from him, we're not interested in that play.

SANDERS: Well, I tell you what - this has been a dream come true, Mr. Sorkin. I got to tell you - the young undergrad poli sci nerd in me is just geeking out right now. And I'm seriously - once we're done with this chat, I'm going to call up my old professor and tell her who I talked to today because this is really great (laughter).

SORKIN: That means the world to me. And when you're talking to your old professor, thank him or her for what a great job they did on you.

SANDERS: Well, Aaron Sorkin, thank you for all that you do. I'm happy that we had this time together.

SORKIN: I really appreciate it. It's been a lot of fun. Thanks, man.

GROSS: Aaron Sorkin spoke with our guest interviewer Sam Sanders, host of the NPR show and podcast It's Been a Minute. Sorkin's new Netflix film "The Trial Of The Chicago 7" is streaming on Netflix. A reunion special of Sorkin's show "The West Wing" was recently produced by HBO Max. Most of the original cast members returned for a stage version of an episode that centered around voting. It's available even for nonsubscribers for the rest of this year.

Coming up, Ken Tucker reviews new music by Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder and The Pretenders. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.