This is a nation built on protests. Where would we be, after all, if those dudes from Boston hadn't pushed bales of tea into the sea back in 1773? Or if Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. hadn't marched on Washington during the civil-rights movement? And let's not forget the protests held at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, easily in America's top five, if only because they'll be forever remembered for the way they devolved into violence and for the images, delivered into the American living room on the 6 o'clock news, of riot cops planting batons onto the heads of long-haired peaceniks.
The battle for Chicago never would have happened without Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, David Dellinger and the rest of the Chicago 7 who planned the protests and were eventually arrested and tried for conspiracy. In Brett Morgan's new film, the sort-of documentary Chicago 10, the writer/director puts the trial on trial and provides extraordinary footage of the events that led to the courtroom.
I call it a “sort-of” documentary because Chicago 10 is different from just about anything you've seen before. Morgan has taken his archival footage of the organizers, the protests and the riots—obtained from private sources and newsreels—and has woven them together as a narrative, with no talking heads to give perspective to the entire experience. And he's also shot a reenactment of the infamous trial of the Chicago 7, but in an unorthodox manner, shooting actors with motion-capture and rotoscoping them into animated versions of Abbie Hoffman, Allan Ginsberg, Judge Julius Hoffman and the rest of the participants, before having actors like Hank Azaria, Nick Nolte, Liev Schreiber and the late Roy Scheider read lines taken directly from court testimony. Morgan calls them the “Chicago 10” because he adds Black Panther Bobby Seale (who was bound and gagged in the courtroom) and attorneys William Kunstler and Leonard Weinglass to their number.
Morgan goes back and forth between his very different before and after, the newsreel and amateur footage and the cartoon courtroom, playing each off of one another. The result is both a fascinating history lesson and a sad testimony to the repression of dissent in America. Though there's little arguing that Hoffman and Rubin were contemptuous of the court, it's also hard to conclude that they were given a fair trial by Judge Hoffman, who's played with dripping malice by Scheider in one of his final roles and whose distaste for the activists was never hidden behind his robes.
Now, it's not all perfect. I would have liked a little more history in Chicago 10—we have little sense of what effect the protests actually had on the convention. Morgan's hero worship of the Yippies is perhaps too evident. And Hank Azaria's Abbie Hoffman sounds remarkably like, at least to anyone with more than a passing familiarity with The Simpsons, bitter and curmudgeonly bartender Moe Szyslak.
But while no one will confuse Chicago 10 with an entirely objective documentary, it has lessons to teach. Again, 40 years later, we're mired in another intractable war headed by yet another intractable Texan. Sure, there have been massive protests against the war in Iraq, but let's face it: It would take another draft before the events of Chicago 10 could repeat themselves. Instead, the current conflict has been foisted upon the volunteer corps and their families, leaving the rest of us to sacrifice—well, not very much at all.
Our protesting forefathers were determined to get their point across to the establishment by any means necessary. Chicago 10 makes us ask how far we will go, without a draft in place, to stop the present sad state of affairs. Sadly, judging by current events, the answer is not very far at all.