'Chicago 10' captures the circus of the 1960s

Cartoon justice: Animated courtroom scene of Abbie Hoffman and Bobby Seale (background)

Cartoon justice: Animated courtroom scene of Abbie Hoffman and Bobby Seale (background)

directed by Brett Morgen
Lagoon Cinema, starts Friday

The Democratic insurgent is the most charismatic candidate since RFK, and the party's convention could be the most convulsive since the debacle in Chicago. The Vietnam War has returned in the personae of Johns McCain and Rambo. And here to mark the 40th anniversary of the tumult that brought Richard Nixon to power: Brett Morgen's Chicago 10.

Thirteen months after Hubert Humphrey was nominated for president in a hall ringed with barbed wire and surrounded by National Guardsmen, amid four days of violent clashes between Chicago police and antiwar protesters, the government charged eight political activists—Dave Dellinger, Rennie Davis, John Froines, Tom Hayden, Abbie Hoffman, Bobby Seale, Jerry Rubin, and Lee Weiner—with crossing state lines as part of a conspiracy to incite riot. Their carnivalesque trial, which ran from late September 1969 into February 1970, resulted in five convictions (later overturned) and citations of contempt that included defense lawyers William Kunstler and Leonard Weinglass—hence Morgen's "10."

Arguably the greatest media spectacle of the High '60s, the convention telecast included ample street violence—demonstrators chanting "The whole world is watching" as helmeted cops bashed their brains. If the convention was a tragedy, the trial was a farce. Revisiting events at once overly familiar and impossible to imagine, Morgen's impure mix of documentary footage and rotoscopic computer animation is unrelenting Sturm und Drang. Chicago 10 has a deliberate and irritating absence of context but a full appreciation of antics—as when the Yippie defendants Hoffman and Rubin appeared in judicial drag, and, forced to disrobe, Hoffman revealed a Chicago police uniform underneath. These shenanigans were equaled only by those of 74-year-old judge Julius J. Hoffman, who sustained prosecution objections and overruled those of the defense at a ratio of perhaps 100 to 1. Taunted throughout, most powerfully by Black Panther co-founder Seale, the judge rarely failed to take the bait.

Moving back and forth between the riots and the trial, the movie delivers ample tumult with no more historical perspective than if it had been produced in 1970. The courtroom is introduced with a fanfare blast of heavy metal. Most of the music is post-'60s, with occasional covers of period classics—another strategy to make the action more "timeless." All of the trial is animated and much of the documentary material has been reworked. Some news footage was filmed off a television screen. Among other tidbits, Morgen, who was born the year Chicago exploded, has unearthed a local TV report on neighborhood kids playing "cops and protesters." So much media attention was focused on the convention that even the rawest vérité footage has a powerful theatricality. The police dramatically perform their job; news reporters and demonstrators are all acutely aware of their imagined historical role.

Morgen's previous documentary, The Kid Stays in the Picture, fawningly celebrated producer Robert Evans, and Chicago 10 is no less glamorizing. Abbie Hoffman (Hank Azaria) is the movie's stellar wise guy, as Seale (Jeffrey Wright) is its heroic victim—but now as then, the most fascinating performance is that of the fussy, name-mangling, imperious little judge, captured perfectly by the late Roy Scheider. In John Schultz's history of the trial, he noted that "the struggle for the laugh and to suppress the laugh [were its] principle forms of aggression and unification." But Abbie's pranks were dwarfed by Julius's judicial outrages, culminating in his denying Seale the right to represent himself and then, rattled by Seale's protests, ordering him gagged and shackled. The image of a black man in bondage was agitprop beyond even the Yippie imagination. Although it occurred relatively early in the proceedings, Morgen understandably holds it back for the climax—intercut with the madness of the convention's final day, police running amok as hell breaks loose in downtown Chicago.

However authentically chaotic, Chicago 10 is insufficiently frenzied. For all its shock value, the trial was not the only game in town. During those months, a half-million antiwar demonstrators marched on Washington and were tear-gassed on the Mall, Seymour Hersh broke My Lai, and the Rolling Stones played Altamont. From the perspective of the conspiracy trial, the most dramatic event occurred a few days before the defense began its case: Chicago police stormed the apartment of the charismatic local Black Panther leader Fred Hampton and shot him dead in his bed.

It was too much to take in then, and it's all but incomprehensible now. According to the trades, Morgen's deliberately ahistorical treatment is a dry run for Steven Spielberg's planned Trial of the Chicago 7—to be scripted by Aaron Sorkin, with Sacha Baron Cohen and possibly Will Smith as Abbie and Bobby. Schindler's List gave the Holocaust a happy ending, and Saving Private Ryan reduced World War II to a single mission, so why not recast the inexplicable convulsions of the late '60s in terms of personality? From bloody tragedy to savage farce to star-struck myth.