The Trial of the Chicago 7

Posted on October 15, 2020 at 3:40 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for drug use, bloody images, language throughout, and some violence
Profanity: Constant very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drugs, alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Historical violence including riots, references to Vietnam War
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: October 16, 2020
Copyright Netflix 2020

They say that history doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes. And that is how “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” based on events that occurred in 1968-69 and in development as a film more more than a decade, seems to have been made for exactly this moment of the fall of 2020. In an interview, Aaron Sorkin, first brought it to write the script by Steven Spielberg in 2006, said that he did not change a word. But he acknowledged that the world moved much closer to the issues in the film, based on the anti-Vietnam War demonstrations at the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago that led to riots, with then-mayor Richard J. Daley telling the police to “shoot to kill” and calling in the National Guard.

A year later, eight of the leaders of the protest were indicted for conspiracy and incitement to riot. The seven white defendants were represented by the activist lawyer William Kuntsler and Constitutional law expert Leonard Weinglass. The sole Black defendant, Bobby Seale, who was only in Chicago for four hours during the convention, was represented by civil rights attorney Charles Garry, who was in the hospital. Seale asked for a delay until his lawyer could be there, and the autocratic judge, Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella), clearly and vocally affronted by the protesters and their disrespect for authority, refused. Kunstler and Weinglass offered to represent him until Garry recovered, but he refused. Later, his case was separated from the others, which is why it is still known as the Chicago 7 trial.

The opening of the film is a master class on how to introduce a large group of central characters. The leaders of each group talk about their hopes and plans for the convention. Lyndon Johnson, whose decision not to run for re-election was in part due to increasing national opposition led to the nomination of his Vice President, Hubert Humphrey, as the Democratic candidate. Many people thought there was no real difference between Humphrey and Johnson and between Humphrey and the Republican candidate, Richard Nixon. This was the era of the “generation gap” as the baby boomers came of age wanting to see major changes in the treatment of what were still referred to as minorities, poor people, and women. But the different groups had very different ideas about how to be effective. Sorkin very effectively showcases the arguments for incremental vs. drastic change, for working within the system to replacing it with a better system.

Langella captures the frustration of a man who believes in the rules that got him where he is and fears that they all collapsing, with him all that stands between order and anarchy. Redmayne is perfect as the thoughtful, studious, thoroughly decent Hayden, and Cohen accomplishes the difficult balancing act of not turning the other Hoffman (the judge seems to take it very personally that they share a name) into the cartoon he sometimes seems to wish to be. Yahya Abdul-Mateen II gives Seale enormous courage and dignity and rising star Kelvin Harrison, Junior continues to impress with his performance as Chicago Black Panther leader Fred Hampton (whose murder is the subject of another rhymes with history 2020 movie, Judas and the Black Messiah). Also exceptional are Mark Rylance as Kuntsler (perhaps more thoughtful and even subdued than the real-life attorney) and Michael Keaton in two scenes as former Attorney General Ramsey Clark.

Sorkin continues to be the best there is with elevating the dialogue just enough that we can almost imagine real people might be that intelligent and articulate and, well, decent. In any year, this film would be outstanding. But as it arrives on what Sorkin called “a collision course with history,” it is both a cautionary tale and a guiding light out of the darkness.

Parents should know that this film includes constant very strong language, some drug use and alcohol, and historical peril and violence, including riots and references to the Vietnam War.

Family discussion: Which of the defendants best represents your view of tactics and communication strategies? What parallels do you see between this trial and the issues people are concerned about today? What are the most significant achievements from the 1968 protests?

If you like this, try: the animated documentary about the trial, “Chicago 10: Speak Your Peace,” Haskell Wexler’s “Medium Cool,” a fictional story filmed at the 1968 Democratic convention, with real scenes of the protest.

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Based on a true story Courtroom Drama Features & Top 10s Movies Race and Diversity

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