Reel Dad: 'The Trial of the Chicago 7' recreates pivotal moment in history

"The Trial of the Chicago 7" is available on Netflix.

Netflix / Contributed photo

No matter what may happen in our world today, we can look at times in recent history for lessons that can help explain current events. Movies that recreate these moments can help us better understand what occurred back then as well as what may happen in front of us today.

Aaron Sorkin’s significant new film, “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” takes us back to 1968 when life in the United States was defined by what divided our people. While some Americans supported the fighting in Vietnam, others opposed; while some tried to keep races apart, others fought for unity. That year’s close presidential election - between Richard Nixon and Hubert Humphrey with George Wallace running as an Independent candidate - became a bitter confrontation that culminated a year filled with assassination and demonstration. The Democratic convention that August, in Chicago, emerged a focal point of the tension experienced across the nation.

With his keen ability to bring history to life, and brilliantly use dialogue to paint visual images, writer/director Sorkin is the perfect storyteller for this complex tale. Rather than limit his dramatic scope to what happens in the courtroom, Sorkin uses the controversial proceedings of the trial to illuminate the stress felt in every home in the land. Like the people on trial, and serving in the jury, Sorkin simply asks, how can a nation founded on the freedom of speech find it so challenging to let people be heard?

If that question resonates today, Sorkin creates a lens through which we can see our own times on screen. As we see today, the filmmaker details how political agendas can frame judicial outcomes; as we hear today, he shares how misunderstandings left untouched can create significant walls. The “Chicago 7” in the film’s title labels the men accused, months after the convention in Chicago, of conspiring to incite violence during what they planned to be peaceful demonstrations against American participation in the Vietnam conflict. How their intentions prompted violence in the streets gives the film its urgency; how politicians used these events for their own purposes makes this work important viewing at any time, especially now.

The all-star cast - including Oscar winners Mark Rylance and Eddie Redmayne - submerge their well-known film personalities into character roles that propel the story. Redmayne reveals layers of anger that define activist Tom Hayden; Rylance helps us understand the reasons that attorney William Kunstler feels so strongly about his approach to the defense. Among members of this strong ensemble, Sacha Baron Cohen walks away with acting honors with his fresh interpretation of Abbie Hoffman, closely followed by Frank Langella’s deliberate portrayal of Judge Julius Hoffman. Michael Keaton, always welcome on any screen, makes a striking cameo appearance as a politician willing to leave his agenda outside the courtroom.

Of course, because this is a movie, the storylines tie together as the final credits roll. History can look that tidy; present day can be a mess. As challenging and uncertain as today’s headlines, Sorkin’s clarity about how we must learn from history can give us a sense of calm. The filmmaker reminds us that, as bad as things can look, we have been through tough times in the past. And there are still lessons to learn.

Film Nutritional Value: The Trial of the Chicago 7

Content: High. How a nation processes the stress of a challenging year forms the backdrop for a compelling look at a pivotal time in recent American history.

Entertainment: High. Thanks to pitch-perfect performances from an ensemble cast, and crisp writing from Aaron Sorkin, the details of the past feel remarkably current.

Message: High. As entertaining as the film can be, what lingers after it ends are the lessons we should remember as we try to understand what happens in our country today.

Relevance: High. Any opportunity to introduce our older children to important periods in history can be welcome.

Opportunity for Dialogue: High. After you share this film with your older children, talk with them about what can influence how the lessons from history can help us look at the events of today.

“The Trial of the Chicago 7” is rated R for “language throughout, some violence, bloody images and drug use.” Running 2 hours, 9 minutes, the film is available on Netflix.