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Chicago 10
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by Peter Sobczynski

"I Was Strolling Through The Park One--OW!!!!"
4 stars

With his latest work, “Chicago 10,” documentary filmmaker Brett Morgen (who previously co-directed the acclaimed films “On the Ropes” and “The Kid Stays in the Picture”) is attempting to bring to the screen the definitive non-fiction depiction of the infamous 1969 show trial in which a group of eight leftist war protestors–Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, David Dellinger, Tom Hayden, Rennie Davis, John Froines, Lee Weiner and Bobby Seale–were hauled before Judge Julius Hoffman (no relation, needless to say) by the U.S. government on charges on inspiring the riots and demonstrations that overwhelmed the1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. (The other two member of the 10 were lawyers William Kunstler and Leonard Weinglass, who Morgan includes because they received as many contempt citations from the judge as their clients.) This is not as easy of a task as it sounds because it is a story that has been documented at length before, both on its own (most notably in the 1988 HBO docudrama “Conspiracy: The Trial of the Chicago 8") and in retrospectives about the protest movement of the 1960's, several of the key participants have since passed away (including Rubin, Kunstler and both Hoffmans) and, most significantly, no film footage exists of the legendarily contentious trial that is at the center of the story. If those obstacles weren’t enough to overcome, Morgen is also trying to tell his story in a more immediate and less “historical” manner that will both interest younger viewers in events that happened long before they were born and inspire them to begin their own forms of protest against the injustices going on in the world today. Perhaps inevitably, the resulting film is a bit of a mess but it is such an energetic and ambitious mess that it winds up capturing the energy and feel of its subject better than a more staid approach to the material possibly could have achieved.

The story in a nutshell, for those of you who were dozing in history class. As the Democratic party, already torn apart by the Vietnam war, Lyndon Johnson’s refusal to run for another term and the assassination of surging candidate Robert Kennedy, was descending upon the city of Chicago to settle on a presidential candidate to run against Richard Nixon in the upcoming election, an equal number of protestors arrived in the city to speak out against the war and the other issues of the day that they felt weren’t being listened to by politicians. Back then, however, such protests had a aura of theatricality to them that was unfortunately lost on those in authority who actually took some of the more outrageous proclamations from pranksters like Hoffman and Rubin (such as their alleged plan to dose the city’s water supply with LSD) all too seriously. When the protestors were denied permits to stage demonstrations, they did not back down and this began a series of back-and-forth standoffs between them and the police that eventually led to full-scale riots that were broadcast on television to a stunned nation.

Embarrassed by the events and the loss of control that they symbolized, the government decided to bring eight of the most notable activist leaders to court on various charges stemming from the riots. Perhaps inevitably, the trial became just as much of a chaotic circus as the riots thanks to the various antics of Rubin and Hoffman (such as showing up for court wearing judicial robes and blowing kisses to the jury) and the overreactions by the prosecutors and Judge Hoffman to said antics. On a more serious note, co-defendant Bobby Seale, who was lumped in with the other more because of his status as a lead member of the Black Panthers than his alleged activities, insisted on defending himself and Judge Hoffman’s refusal to allow this set up a struggle between the two that eventually culminated in Seale actually being handcuffed, bound and gagged in the courtroom before finally being severed from the case and tried separately.

In the hands of a ordinary documentarian, “Chicago 10" would most likely consist of archival footage mixed in with newly-shot talking-head interviews with the surviving participants and other commentators and tied together with a solemn narration and music from the period. In trying to make the film a topical viewing experience for contemporary viewers, Morgen has largely eschewed these elements. There is plenty of archival footage on display and much of it is fascinating to behold–there are the familiar images of the chaos that erupted in Grant Park and the various press conferences conducted by Hoffman and Rubin but there are also such intriguing tidbits as footage of early strategy sessions held by key members of the anti-war movement debating how to go about protesting the convention. However, there is no narration or looking-back interviews here to remove us from the proceedings in a way–this is a smart move because it lends an immediacy to the proceedings that it might have otherwise lacked.. Musically, the film also tries to bridge the gap between the past and the present by largely favoring contemporary tunes from the likes of Rage Against the Machine and Eminem. I’m not so sure how successful this particular gambit is but I must admit that it is a little bit trippy to see familiar riot footage set to the unfamiliar strains of the likes of the Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage.”

The film’s boldest stylistic move–the one that seems to polarize most audiences–comes from the way that Morgen depicts the trial sequences that drive the entire story. As there were no camera rolling inside the courtroom at that time to utilize, Morgan has made the bold decision to bring these segments to life via motion-capture animation with actors such as Mark Ruffalo, Liev Schreiber, Nick Nolte, Hank Azaria, Jeffrey Wright and the late Roy Scheider delivering dialogue taken straight from the trial transcripts. Initially, the shift from the traditional archival footage to the animation is fairly jarring (even if you are expecting it) but as the film goes on, the technique grows on you to the point where you don’t really notice it. In fact, if there is one complaint to be levied about the animation, it is that Morgen is at times too restrained in the way he utilizes it–outside of giving Judge Hoffman a vaguely vampiric look at times, the visual approach is surprisingly straightforward and doesn’t take the flamboyant leaps that one might have expected him to use in order to depict a trial that many described as a “circus.”

For those with some degree of familiarity of the events surrounding the ‘68 convention and its aftermath, “Chicago 10" may seem a little glib and facile at times in its refusal to broaden its scope–not only is there no real information about what was going on within the walls of the convention, we don’t, as far as I can remember, even hear the names of the people who were there vying for the presidential nomination–and for the way that it allows more colorful personalities like Rubin, Hoffman and, to a lesser extent, Seale to pretty much dominate the proceedings while largely relegating quieter but equally fascinating defendants like the longtime pacifist activist David Dellinger to the background. Then again, “Chicago 10" is not, as I have suggest, a nuts-and-bolts historical document aimed at viewers who already know the entire story. Instead, it a film that is more concerned with showing younger viewers that there was once a time when people their age actively challenged the status quo instead of blindly accepting everything at face value and exhorting them to do the same during these equally troubling times. On those levels, “Chicago 10" succeeds. Of course, whether those younger viewers take up that challenge remains to be seen.

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originally posted: 02/29/08 16:00:00
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2007 Sundance Film Festival For more in the 2007 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2007 Chicago International Film Festival For more in the 2007 Chicago International Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

10/11/08 Colleen H I loved this format. A remarkably well done movie about a tragic time in our lives. 4 stars
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  29-Feb-2008 (R)
  DVD: 26-Aug-2008


  DVD: 26-Aug-2008

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