Dubby’s dvdiscussion: The Chicago revolt


Director Brett Morgen’s The Chicago 10 explores recent American history with a mixture of mediums ranging form black and white footage to colour records and a superb form of animation.

The Chicago 10 were the leaders of the protest against the Vietnam war at the 1963 Democratic Convention when Mayor Daley brought in the National Guard to quell riots. A pity there are no such protests against Iraq.

Says Nicholas White, “Based on the sensational 1968 trial of the Chicago 7 (a group of anti-war protestors charged with conspiracy and inciting a riot), Chicago 10 is part documentary, part motion-capture animation. The Chicago 7 was actually eight people, and Chicago 10 is named after the group’s two attorneys, who also went courageously to jail. The men on trial included Abbie Hoffman, the outspoken icon of Chicago-based activism, and Jerry Rubin, a 20th century celebrity in his own right. Chicago 10’s cartoon portion tries to recreate the drama of the real-life trial. The jury listens sceptically and a crotchety old judge (voiced by the late Roy Scheider) gives the defendants’ opposition. It’s a commentary of the farcical nature of the trial — and the surreal standards behind it. Connecting the dots is a music video-like series of documentary images, spotlighted by horrific scenes such as the Chicago police and National Guardsmen striking back scores of protestors. Rage Against the Machine and Beastie Boys songs underlie violent tableaux. For Americans born 1980 and after, this era of left-leaning cultural dissent can be a foreign world. The 1960s’ silencing of voices questioning the government, in the era of civil rights and the Vietnam War, has been echoed with the Iraqi War. But protests like Chicago 10 are a rarity today.”

Critic Glenn Kenny adds, “The courtroom scenes are the animated ones. The material is incredibly compelling — though trust me, it was even more compelling (and scary) as it was happening. It seemed as if the stand-off between a wild-haired, kick-out-the-jams activist youth and a hate-filled, petulant establishment was constantly on the brink of boiling over — and it did, at Kent State, a couple of years hence.”

Kathleen C Fennessy concludes, “Some documentaries endow historical events with context, while others recreate them in all their messy glory, leaving viewers to organise the chaos themselves. Brett Morgen (co-director, The Kid Stays in the Picture) takes the latter tack in his multi-media reconstruction of the protests during 1968’s Democratic National Convention. Using the ensuing conspiracy trial as a framing device, he assembles archival footage and animated sequences into a Rorschach-type pattern (the title refers to the eight defendants and their attorneys). Further, he turns to blistering tracks from the Beastie Boys and Rage Against the Machine to distinguish his doc from the usual nostalgia parade — sprinkled with period-appropriate selections, like Black Sabbath’s War Pigs. In the motion-capture portions, actors voice the primary players: Yippie leaders Abbie Hoffman (Hank Azaria) and Jerry Rubin (Mark Ruffalo), Black Panther Bobby Seale (Jeffrey Wright), Prosecutor Thomas Foran (an ultra-raspy Nick Nolte), and Judge Julius Hoffman (Roy Scheider, in one of his final roles). Until the tone darkens towards the end, Chicago 10 is almost too diverting for its own good. Hoffman and Rubin come across as charismatic comedians rather than committed activists, though there’s nothing funny about their furore over the conflict in Vietnam. If Morgen spends too much time on their Marx Brothers-like antics — in attempting to expose the ridiculousness of their plight, they sometimes seem more like petulant pranksters than First Amendment champions — Chicago 10’s contemporary relevance makes it necessary viewing for free-speech proponents and anti-war protestors alike.”