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What parents need to know
Parents need to know that The Trial of the Chicago 7 tackles mature issues, involves scenes of violence inflicted by police, and depicts some authority figures making unethical decisions. Viewers with no context of the history behind this courtroom drama might feel lost at times or even bored. The film involves a lot of talking, which could fly over younger viewers' heads. But the main characters, the trial defendants and their lawyers, are idealistic about their rights to free speech and the plausibility of protesting for social justice, topics of great relevance today. They show integrity, seriousness, humor, and courage in standing up for their beliefs, including in tough scenes showing Black men abused by court guards or "executed" by police. The protests the seven are on trial for turned into bloody riots when protestors clashed with the thousands of heavily-armed police sent in, and these scenes, which combine fictional and archival footage, show police spraying tear gas into crowds and beating protestors with wooden clubs, resulting in bloody faces and heads. The times in general were violent, with thousands dying in Vietnam and political and social figures assassinated. There are sexual references and language, but not visual content. Language includes "f--k," "damn," "ass," "s--t," "c--t," "hell," and "Christ."
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What's the story?
The year is 1969 and 8 men are brought to trial for organizing anti-war protests the prior year outside the Democratic National Convention in THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7. The protests had been organized without the proper permits, and when thousands of riot police are sent in, they turn bloody. The defendants and their lawyers (Mark Rylance, Ben Shenkman) are convinced the charges are politically motivated, and in the general social upheaval of the late 1960s, there's a wide breach between the traditional bureaucracy and growing social movements. The new Nixon government has called in young prosecutor Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) to take the case, assigned a seemingly unscrupulous judge (Frank Langella). Among the defendants are hippies Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) and Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong), of the Youth International Party (known as the Yippies), the more clean-cut Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) and Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp) of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), and Black Panther Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II).
Is it any good?
THis is a suspenseful and sometimes eloquent film with inspired casting that paints '60s-era anti-war activists as flawed heroes up against a corrupt bureaucracy. You'd expect nothing less from the creator of that beacon of principled progressive politics, The West Wing. Writer-director Sorkin's focus on the trial rather than the bloody riots of 1968, which we don't glimpse until more than 45 minutes into The Trial of the Chicago 7, allows the actors to shine with Sorkin standards like fast-paced intellectual sparring and moving displays of courage and righteousness. Baron Cohen, Redmayne, and Rylance were particularly inspired choices in an entirely male-centric cast (and story). They embody their characters' demeanors and accents as well as their passion and intelligence.
The world could use more Hoffmans and Haydens, as they're depicted by Sorkin: whip-smart, committed social critics with, in Hoffman's case, a razor-sharp wit and no fear of authority. In one of the film's best lines, Hoffman sneers at the prosecutor's questioning: "Give me a moment, would you, friend? I've never been on trial for my thoughts before." Some historical knowledge is helpful but not essential, and also not a spoiler here. A 7-minute introduction confuses as much as it contextualizes, giving too much information too fast. The film's relevance to contemporary social upheaval could not be clearer, particularly in the subtexts of racial injustice and excessive use of police force. It's hard to imagine this wasn't fully intentional. At one point, for example, the camera closes in on a protestor's sign reading "Lock them up!" A later scene closes to voiceover chants that "the whole world is watching."
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about the historical events depicted in The Trial of the Chicago 7. What did you know before, and what did you learn from the movie?
What other films have you watched that revolve around courtrooms?
What parallels can you make between the movements and protests portrayed in the film and some of the social upheaval today in the US?
Have you watched other films or series made by the writer-director of this film, Aaron Sorkin? What common themes or techniques did you detect?
- On DVD or streaming: October 16, 2020
- Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Sacha Baren Cohen, Mark Rylance
- Director: Aaron Sorkin
- Studio: Dreamworks Pictures
- Genre: Drama
- Topics: Activism, Friendship, History
- Character strengths: Courage, Integrity
- Run time: 129 minutes
- MPAA rating: R
- MPAA explanation: drug use, bloody images, language throughout, some violence
- Awards/Honors: Golden Globe
- Last updated: July 15, 2021
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