'Chicago 10': Right On

A Brilliant Depiction Of Events That Turned America on Its Head

Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 29, 2008; Page C01

Ding-dong, the dumps are done: After a slew of awful late-winter studio releases, the first great film of 2008 has arrived. "Chicago 10," Brett Morgen's bold, ambitious and improbably affecting documentary about the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago and the trial that followed, not only brings to life one of the sorriest chapters in American cultural and political history; thanks to Morgen's adroit manipulation of the cinematic medium, "Chicago 10" feels like a brand-new kind of film, and one that's every bit as inspiring, exhilarating and contradictory as the events it depicts.

A spirited and densely layered collage of animation, archival footage and ingeniously anachronistic music, "Chicago 10" stars the voices of Hank Azaria, Mark Ruffalo and Jeffrey Wright. They play Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin and Bobby Seale, who with five other activists were arrested on conspiracy charges during the convention, when violence broke out between antiwar demonstrators and Chicago police (by way of Mayor Richard J. Daley's thuggish machine).

"Chicago 10" takes viewers back to the beginnings of the demonstrations, which came on the heels of the Tet Offensive, troop escalations and the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy. Led by Yippie founders Hoffman and Rubin, as well as the more clean-cut members of the Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam (MOBE), thousands of "Yippies, hippies and just plain kids" descended on Chicago that August to protest Democratic Party establishmentarians and the brand of militaristic capitalism they represented.

As portrayed in "Chicago 10," the activists were spoiling for a fight, but not half as much as Daley, who ordered out the Illinois Army National Guard as well as his own blue-helmeted police department to push back against the demonstrators. The result, over the four days of the convention, was what many observers saw as a full-blown police riot, a bloody scene of mayhem and bloodshed that came to symbolize the most violent generational and political ruptures of America in that pivotal year.

Morgen, whose last documentary was "The Kid Stays in the Picture," does a breathtaking job of plunging viewers straight into the action, combing reams of stock footage to create a riveting tick-tock of the demonstrations. But what elevates "Chicago 10" from a good documentary to a great film are two strokes of brilliance. The first is Morgen's use of animation to represent the ensuing conspiracy trial, which comes improbably to life through the use of motion-capture animation, wherein the movements of human actors are digitally recorded, then turned into animated characters. (The script is taken verbatim from court transcripts.)

Rubin called the trial a cartoon, and as Morgen cuts between scenes on the street in 1968 and scenes in the courtroom in 1969, it's clear that both were stages for agitprop mischief. It comes across as an almost Oedipal struggle between the Daddy State and its most disobedient sons. Within the first few minutes of "Chicago 10," the animated characters of the trial have become vivid, full-blooded people, from the notoriously erratic Judge Julius Hoffman (voiced by the late Roy Scheider, in a fittingly memorable performance) to the embattled Bobby Seale, whom Hoffman had bound, gagged and chained.

Although the defendants were known as the Chicago 8 (and then the Chicago 7 after Seale was severed from the case), Morgen's title includes their attorneys, William Kunstler and Leonard Weinglass, because of their significant roles in the courtroom drama; the two were later imprisoned on contempt charges. (Kunstler is voiced by Liev Schreiber and Weinglass voices himself). Reanimated by Morgen, these outsize characters play their parts in a narrative that is by turns appalling and amusing. A recurring note of gently comic relief appears throughout "Chicago 10" in the figure of beat poet Allen Ginsberg, who at one hilarious point chants "Om" as Kunstler and the judge engage in one of several shouting matches.

During the film's most grievous passage, Morgen intercuts the sequence of Seale being silenced with graphic scenes of police brutality the year before, which reached its apotheosis when demonstrators tried to march from Grant Park to the amphitheater where the convention was being held. And this is where Morgen's second stroke of brilliance comes most movingly into play, as protester David Dellinger and the marchers behind him are greeted with billy clubs and tear gas -- accompanied not by the standard "For What It's Worth" or "We Shall Overcome," but by Eminem's anthemic rap "Mosh." Throughout "Chicago 10," Morgen uses such relatively contemporary artists as the Beastie Boys and Rage Against the Machine as a musical setting for archival footage, giving the film not just aesthetic sophistication and verve, but a sense of relevance that is no less urgent for being understated.

As the trial dragged on, Hoffman, Rubin and the others became known as "rock stars"; when Hoffman compares his fame to "La Dolce Vita" he doesn't even know how to pronounce "paparazzi." If Morgen's sympathies are clearly on the side of the Yippies and hippies, his portrait doesn't succumb to complete hagiography: He's created a new movement myth, one that takes into account the Left's self-indulgence, its sexism, its leaders' canny manipulation of their growing fame, but that firmly puts Daley and the Chicago police on the side of repression and injustice.

One of the film's most haunting images is of a young man being beaten for climbing a statue in Lincoln Park, a scene that recalls Tiananmen Square in its stark symbolism. The whole world was watching, then. Refusing to wallow in boomer nostalgia or impotent recrimination, "Chicago 10" instead has the artistic and political audacity to confront filmgoers with a far more timely and essential question: Who's watching now?

Chicago 10 (100 minutes, at Landmark's E Street Cinema) is rated R for profanity and brief sexual images.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company