The story of the 1968 Democratic Convention riots and the trial that followed would seem to have it all, with no need for sexing up. There were riots in the streets (broadcast live on TV, even), youthful heroes with a zest for the theatrical, scowling villains with little regard for decency, and the sense that the future of America was hanging in the balance. That wasn't enough, though, for director Brett Morgen
(The Kid Stays in the Picture), who said that with Chicago 10 he wanted to make a film that "resonates with kids today" by being done "in a language they understand… without talking heads and a narrator and all those trappings." Thus: Animation and Rage Against the Machine on the soundtrack. The first sign, of course, that somebody will be wholly unable to effectively communicate with kids today is when they refer to them as "kids today."
Morgen's conceit with Chicago 10 -- mixing archival footage of the riot and its aftermath with animated recreations of the trial -- is not the film's problem. In fact, by breaking away from the well-worn documentarian's path of narration and flashback, Morgen does opens interesting doors for other filmmakers to follow. But the filmmakers (Morgen's main backer was Vanity Fair editor and occasional political dilettante Graydon Carter) have such a lack of faith in their own subject's inherent power that it all ends up more a gimmick than a bold new direction in non-fiction filmmaking. Medium Cool 2008 it's not. Article continues below
The gimmickry is most blatant in the courtroom scenes, where the Yippies are being frog-marched through a howlingly unfair mockery of a trial. Although the dialogue is taken straight from the transcript, Morgen can't help but overplay his hand. So prosecutor Tom Foran's lines come out in Nick Nolte
's frighteningly strangled squawk, while judge Julius Hoffman (whose ludicrous contempt citations were later tossed out by an appeals court) is voiced as pure malefic villainy by the late Roy Scheider. The defendants get more human voicing (
as Abbie Hoffman
, Mark Ruffalo
as Jerry Rubin) and also the opportunity to ham it up, Yippie-style. The stark animation renders everyone in the courtroom equally stiff, but Morgen swoops his camera through the confined space to lend it a dynamism that initially impresses but eventually distracts. No surprise then that such a surface-oriented film is so taken with Hoffman and Rubin's freaking-the-straights antics, a little of which goes a very long way. Their clown poses seem even more ridiculous when placed against the sight of Bobby Seale (Jeffrey Wright
) literally bound and gagged by Judge Hoffman; a sickening display of thuggish authoritarianism that makes the Yippies' comedy riffs the film is so enamored of seem pathetic as a response.
Where Chicago 10 does impress is in the depth of its research. With viewers accustomed to seeing the Chicago riots in a few well-worn clips shoehorned into 1960s retrospectives, the looping collages that follow the protestors flooding into Lincoln Park and the eruptions of violence afterward will be a revelation. What becomes clear is not just the protestors' lack of central planning (once gathered in Lincoln Park and denied a permit to march, the crowds and their Yippie leaders seem lost) but how their buoyant optimism faded to terror in the face of the police and National Guard's machine-like determination to sweep the city clean. Moments briefly sting with the haunt of incipient fascism: Allen Ginsberg chanting with shaking fear over a loudspeaker, blue-shirted police swarming through the trees with nightsticks flailing. But their power is lost through a messy editing structure and a strangely abrupt conclusion.
By shearing away the standard documentary props in the interest of not boring those darn kids, Morgen has unfortunately left himself with a dilemma: how else to establish the context for the riots? Assuming that Chicago 10 is targeted at today's politically aware youth (there's at least two or three out there), and wants to educate them about the American left's radical past, it seems to take on faith that they will have a good grasp on the national mood, circa 1968. The film gives the barest dash of background on where the Vietnam War was during the time, but any unschooled youths (the ones Morgen hopes to entice by playing Eminem's "Mosh" during footage of one march) wondering why the liberals were protesting the Democrats will be left out in the cold. Chicago 10 is a film that makes history (literally) into a cartoon.