Chicago 10 (2007): Brett Morgan’s Animated Chronicle of 1968 National Democratic Convention

Sundance Film Fest 2007 (Premieres)–The 2007 Sundance Film Fest opened with Brett Morgen’s experimental documentary, Chicago 10, a colorful animated chronicle of the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention and the Conspiracy Trial that followed, a bold statement perfectly tuned to our politically charged times.

It was courageous on the part of the programmers of Sundance, still the Mecca for indies and the most important festival in the U.S., to begin the high-profile event with a docu, and one that’s decidedly non-traditional in subject, approach, form, and style.

As always, there are different ways to examine “Chicago 10.” From the perspective of its gifted filmmaker, Brett Morgen, who previously made “On the Ropes” and “The Kid Stays in the Picture,” “Chicago 10” represents his most ambitious work to date, a work that tries to do something different. Even if it’s not entirely successful, there’s much to praise about this docu, which combines animation and archival footage in equal measure.

It may be useful to begin by indicating what “Chicago 10” is not–vis–vis the contempo tradition of non-fictional work. “Chicago 10” is not a conventional historical chronicle of two seminal evens and the tumultuous era in which they are set. Moreover, it’s a docu that defies chronology and lacks narration or voice-over. Finally, the music used represents a deliberate combination of period tunes and contemporary ones.

As written and directed by Morgen (with some help from others), “Chicago 10” is literally a call to arms. Deeply upset by the political apathy of American youngsters and their ignorance of important historical facts, Morgen (himself born in 1968) has tried and to a large extent succeeded in finding an innovative, entertaining, and contemporary way to present ideas, personalities, and issues of the era to a younger generation of viewers. “Chicago 10” might seem to be didactic and preachy, but it’s not. It’s a work meant to be experienced viscerally and emotionally, rather than intellectually.

Truth to tell, “Chicago 10” is not very deep (as entertaining as “Kid Stays in the Picture” was, that docu was also shallow) and harsh critics may fault the work for omitting important issues (specifically those presented and addressed during the Democratic Convention), But, if anything, the docu suffers from “an embarrassment of riches” in terms of the archival footage available. Morgen has spent years digging deep into archives and libraries.

More than exploring or investigating, “Chicago 10” illustrates the build-up and unraveling of the Chicago Conspiracy Trial. It’s a story of eight young Americans who decided to put themselves on the line and speak out abut the burning issues of the day, the Vietnam War, racism in America, erosion of democratic values, and so on, all in the face of an oppressive and armed government.

Though it does not follow chronology, the socio-political context is established rather quickly. At the 1968 Democratic Convention, protestors are denied permits for a demonstration. Unwilling to give up, they repeatedly clash with the Chicago Police Department, whose members wage a week-long terror campaign that resulted in riots witnessed live b a TV audience of over 50 million viewers. Needless to say, the events had a polarized effect on the country.

Needing to find a scapegoat for the riots, the Government holds eight of the most vocal activists accountable for the violence. They are brought to high-profile trial, one that quickly escalates into a media circus (and in moments a zoo), a year later.

The defendants represent a broad cross-section of the anti Vietnam War movement, from counter- cultural icons Abbie Hoffman (voiced by Hank Azaria) and Jerry Rubin (Mark Ruffalo), who dominated the piece, to renowned pacifist David Dellinger (Dylan Baker), the oldest member of the group, whose protests began during WWII, Korea, and Bay of Pigs.

Seven of the defendants are represented by Leonard Weinglass (the only character voiced by the real-life man himself) and the famed liberal attorney William Kunstler (Liev Schreiber), who go head-to-head with prosecution attorney Thomas Foran (Nick Nolte).

The eighth defendant, Bobby Seale (Jeffrey Wright) is the only African-American, the co-chair of the Black Panther Party. For me, his sequences in the docu are the most poignant even if they’re done in a semi-humorous style that might upset some critics. Insisting on defending himself, he is bound, gagged, and handcuffed to his chair by Judge Julius Hoffman (Roy Scheider).

It’s almost hard to believe that such nasty brutality occurred within the courtroom. At the time, the press and media were not allowed into the court proceedings, and I think this kind of misconduct would never happen today.

As noted, eschewing talking-head interviews and narration, “Chicago 10” instead allows the viewers to experience the drama and tragedy in a vibrantly dynamic way.

Some critics (not me) may find the docu’s structure marred by too many transitions, from archival footage to animation, from black and white to color, from indoor trial scenes to outdoor riots. But the overall goal remains clear: Bringing the past into the present by moving back and forth from the streets of Chicago to the courtroom and back–at an exciting and accelerating pace.

I found it interesting that in the last, extremely moving reel, which presents the riots and police brutality, the film’s personae completely disappear from the proceedings-by design. The characters reappear in the end credits, when we are told the varying length of time that each of the defendants spent in jail, from several months to over two years.

Dense in texture, if also repetitious in some of the animated court scenes, “Chicago 10” is nonetheless replete with resonant moment. Could anyone watch President Johnson’s statement that he had decided to increase the number of troops in Vietnam from 75,000 to 125,000 without recalling Bush’s last-week statement about escalating (in his words “surge”) the War in Iraq. Could anyone watch the police brutality against the demonstrators without thinking of recent incidents of oppressive authority (there are too many to recite here).

Space doesn’t permit me to dwell on the film’s many rewarding moments, such as the scenes with the late gay Jewish poet Allen Ginsberg (also voiced by Hank Azaria), who recites an erotic poem, presents his philosophy, and states that he will take another route in Chicago because he doesn’t believe in belligerent conductunlike that of the other militant activists.

Why is the docu titled “Chicago 10,” if there were 8 (7 plus Seale, who in many ways severed himself from the bunch) defendants Morgen shrewdly adds to this honorable group the two attorneys, since they too were cited for contempt by the judge.

The best thing to be said about “Chicago 10” is that it’s original and unlike any documentary you have seen before or likely to see in the future.

Cast-Voices:

Abbie Hoffman/Allen Ginsberg – Hank Azaria
David Dellinger/David Stahl -Dylan Baker
Thomas Foran – Nick Nolte
Jerry Rubin – Mark Ruffalo
Judge Julius Hoffman – Roy Scheider
William Kunstler – Liev Schreiber
Bobby Seale – Jeffrey Wright

Credits

A River Road Entertainment and Participant Prods. presentation in association with Consolidated Documentaries and Public Road Prods.
Produced by Brett Morgen, Graydon Carter. Executive producers: William Pohlad, Laura Bickford, Jeff Skoll, Diane Weyermann, Peter Schlessel, Ricky Strauss.
Directed, written by Brett Morgen.
Editor: Stuart Levy; additional editing, Kristina Boden.
Music: Jeff Danna.
Animation: Curious Pictures; additional animation, Asterisk, Yowza Animation; animation production designer-digital camera, Todd Winter.
Sound designer: Paul Urmson; re-recording mixers, Bob Chefalas, Paul Urmson.

Running time: 103 Minutes.