Film-Forward Review: CHICAGO 10

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An animated shot of defendants
Bobby Seale, Abbie Hoffman & Jerry Rubin (left to right)
Photo: Roadside Attractions

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Written & Directed by Brett Morgen
Produced by Morgen & Graydon Carter
Edited by Stuart Levy
Music by Jeff Dana
Released by Roadside Attractions.
USA. 103 min. Rated R.
With the voices of Hank Azaria, Mark Ruffalo, Dylan Baker, Liev Schreiber, Nick Nolte, Jeffrey Wright and Roy Scheider

Chicago 10 revisits the cataclysm in Chicago, August 1968, through a fresh cinematic look, free of an omniscient narrator or old folks strategically recalling their glory days. Director Brett Morgen briefly sets the background of the political trauma of 1968 (the year he was born) with the usual news clips, from LBJ’s declaration of the surge in Vietnam to the shock of the assassinations and the riots around the country, including in Chicago. But just as the history lesson gets too, well, conventional, he hones in on the eight men the government charged with conspiracy to promote violence at the Democratic nominating convention, which included Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, and Tom Hayden. (Two defense lawyers, William Kunstler and Leonard Weinglass, were charged with contempt, for the title’s total of 10).

Structured like a court room drama, the selected testimony from the actual trial transcripts is enlivened through animation, appropriate for what was literally a show trial. Like court reporter drawings that move, the animation is halfway between the flat graphic novel-inspired animation of the similarly political Persepolis and The Prisoner or: How I Planned to Kill Tony Blair as well as Richard Linklater’s recent rotoscoped films. Actors seamlessly capture the inflections of the principals, especially The Simpsons‘ protean voice-over expert Hank Azaria as Abbie Hoffman.

Morgen refers to his earlier bio-doc The Kid Stays in the Picture on filmmaker Robert Evans by borrowing significantly from the Evans-produced Medium Cool, where Haskell Wexler superimposed a bare fictional narrative over a still powerful cinema vérité of the police and National Guard actions before and during the convention. Color and black-and-white archival film from many different angles chronicles day-by-day, night-by-night, block-by-block the protests and what the Walker Report to the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence later labeled a police riot.

As flashbacks from the trial, these clips starkly contradict the prosecution’s witnesses. Earlier, Morgen depicts the pre-convention preparations and actions of each defendant, primarily through actual press interviews and speeches. But after two years of searching archives around the world, Morgen implicitly counters the government’s indictment by not finding any film documentation of the alleged activities of Black Panther Bobby Seale (voiced by Jeffrey Wright) and the two defendants most likely to stump trivia buffs, antiwar activists John Froines and Lee Weiner.

It is unclear if U.S. Attorney Thomas Foran (voiced by Nick Nolte) built his case primarily on the defendants’ and defense witnesses’ use of profanity or if that’s what Morgen has chosen to emphasize for amusement. (Abbie Hoffman’s bemused radio commentary from a street corner phone booth about being tried for his thoughts is shown in one of many animated sequences.) Any bemusement stops at how the marshals and irascible Judge Julius Hoffman (voiced by the late Roy Scheider) treated Seale at the trial, where he insisted on representing himself. Redolent not only with racism but images of today’s military tribunals, Seal’s gagging and shackling are still shocking, even in animation. (His case was severed from the others, turning the original “Chicago 8” into the “Chicago 7.”)

Mayor Richard Daley welcomes the delegates with a defiant law and order speech against the demonstrators he later calls terrorists; CBS anchor Walter Cronkite declares Chicago a police state. But Morgen otherwise doesn’t return to the convention, the target of the demonstrators’ protests. There is particularly a gap in showing the delegates’ responses to the actions outside, such as Senator Abraham Ribicoff’s condemnation from the convention podium about “Gestapo tactics in the streets of Chicago,” even as various counter-demonstrators and trial witnesses make anti-Semitic comments about the protest leaders.

Morgen’s music selections are both adventurous and problematical. He selects today’s politically-conscious bands, such as Rage Against the Machine and the Beastie Boys, to resonate with a young audience who may know little of this history, and avoids period clichés while broadening the film’s appeal to both boomers and their children. (I thought there was a Hollywood law that any movie set during the Vietnam War had to include Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son.”) But most of the action is inexplicably set to Jeff Dana’s swirling orchestral score instead of a representative rock ‘n’ roll beat. Nora Lee Mandel
February 29, 2008



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