by Jeff Meyers
While much of the boomer generation can be blamed for what’s wrong with our country today, you’ve got to hand it to them for one thing: They sure knew how to throw a protest.
Watching Brett Morgen’s Chicago 10, one can’t help but long for the days when American citizens actually believed that political activism mattered. While most young people today have big problems with the Bush administration and its so-called War on Terror, revolution doesn’t really seem to be an option. Maybe it’s the lack of a draft or maybe it’s the Internet, but most modern dissent is limited to discussion boards and snarky blogs.
And that’s the underlying trouble for Morgen, whose previous credits include On the Ropes and The Kid Stays in the Picture. This energetic documentary and call-to-arms is trying to reach a generation that views the ’60s counterculture as ancient history.
For those familiar with the unrest that surrounded the 1968 Democratic Convention, Chicago 10 is both slippery and superficial, ignoring much of the period’s historical context and putting the focus on history as performance. It’s not a bad take if your goal is to inspire a younger generation to view protest as a viable method for political change. After all, it seems to work well for nations like France and Italy, where governments actually respond to the complaints of their citizens. But as a meaningful treatise on recent history, Morgen’s film falls short.
Taking a sensationalistic approach, Chicago 10 narrows the focus to on-the-street confrontations between protesters and police, then juxtaposes them with the ensuing show trial where protest leaders Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, David Dellinger, Tom Hayden, Rennie Davis, John Froines, Lee Weiner and Bobby Seale were hauled before doddering U.S. District Court Judge Julius Hoffman and made into scapegoats. Not only were most of them found guilty of trumped-up charges, their lawyers (William Kunstler and Leonard Weinglass) were jailed for contempt of court.
As a lens into a time when politically active youth were viewed as enemies of the state, it’s an arresting (sometimes shocking) account. The trial is torn between the Felliniesque antics of the smartass defendants and the Kafkaesque rulings of the court. Seeing Black Panther leader Bobby Seale bound and gagged in a courtroom simply for asking that his constitutional rights be upheld should send shivers down the spine of anyone who embraces the notion of due process. And yet it’s a recorded fact of history.
What makes Chicago 10 so groundbreaking (and divisive), is Morgen’s decision to re-create the carnival-like atmosphere of the trial from transcripts by using computer animated stand-ins voiced by Hollywood actors like Hank Azaria, Nick Nolte, Jeffrey Jones, Liev Shreiber and others. At the time, cameras were not permitted in the courtroom, and though we have accounts and transcripts of what went on, Morgen brings the events to dynamic life … sorta.
Set against a soundtrack of MTV-like song selections (Eminem, Rage Against the Machine), Chicago 10’s brightly colored animation takes time to get used to as the doc flips back and forth from compelling archival footage. Morgen provides a savvy contrast between the brutal confrontations outside the convention — it’s alarming to watch cops beat the living hell out of mostly peaceful protesters then blatantly lie about it on the stand — and the anarchic spirit of the Yippies, the protest ringleaders whose self-indulgent antics did them no favors with the jury or general public.
Unfortunately, the motion-capture animation is barely a cut above computer-game technology from 10 years ago. The character stand-ins are cartoonishly awkward and inexpressive, sometimes undermining important moments in the trial. Luckily, the voice actors manage to dispel the artifice and create an engaging — and, in the case of Azaria’s Hoffman, intimate — view of justice gone awry. Only Nolte (as Prosecutor Thomas Foran), with his all-too-recognizable rasp, takes us out of the reality Morgen labors so mightily to deliver.
If for nothing else, Chicago 10 should be praised for breaking from documentary convention to present a more immediate and energetic take on the humor and outrage of the ’60s. The movie is blissfully free of talking-head interviews, predictable period music and somber narration. It’s also absent a depth of perspective or intellectual heft, missing the political dots that connect 1968 to 2008.
Still, as a chronicle of a time when twentysomethings actively challenged the status quo and argued against war, racism and the erosion of democratic values, it serves as an inspiration to reject the "official" narrative of our nation and protest for change. Of course, that’s assuming anyone under 40 actually sees the movie.
Opens Friday, April 25, at the Main Art Theatre, 118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.