2008, R, 110 min. Directed by Brett Morgen. Voices by Hank Azaria, Dylan Baker, Nick Nolte, Mark Ruffalo, Roy Scheider, Liev Schreiber, Jeffrey Wright.
REVIEWED By Josh Rosenblatt, Fri., April 4, 2008
Chicago in late August 1968 was a madhouse. You could make the argument that any town hosting a political convention in America is bound to turn a bit odd, but the Democratic Convention of 1968 was a special case, with Mayor Richard J. Daley holding court inside the International Amphitheatre, tens of thousands of Vietnam War protesters assembling outside, and an enormous phalanx of policemen and National Guardsmen standing between them, nightsticks and tear gas in hand. Add to this already volatile mix the anarchic absurdity and comic indignation of the revolutionary Yippies, led by clown princes Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, and it’s a wonder the city’s still standing. With the events of that summer coming up on their 40th anniversary, writer/director Morgen (The Kid Stays in the Picture) has made a documentary that somehow manages to capture the anarchic spirit of those topsy-turvy times without devolving into anarchy itself. Chicago 10 is equal parts tragedy and comedy, high drama and low farce. On the one hand, you have the footage of that week’s street confrontations, which started out as peaceful protests and hippie “celebrations of life” and grew over the course of the convention’s four days into full-blown riots, either as a result of the lawlessness of the protesters or the overzealousness of the cops, depending on whom you choose to believe. On the other, you’ve got the film’s beautifully animated re-enactments of the criminal trials of the so-called Chicago 7 (or 8, to be exact, or 10, if you embrace Morgen's logic of including the two defense attorneys in the count). Facing criminal conspiracy charges, Hoffman and his merry band of long-haired, anti-imperialist jesters turned Judge Julius Hoffman’s courtroom into their own Marx Brothers movie, thumbing their noses at the prosecutor, dressing in judges' robes, blowing kisses at straitlaced jury members (all of whom, Hoffman says, must have been shipped in from the “back pages of the Ladies' Home Journal”), and laughing at the threat of lengthy prison sentences. With an exceptional cast giving voice to the Yippies (including Azaria and Ruffalo), their lawyer William Kunstler (Schreiber), and the trial’s eighth defendant, Black Panther Bobby Seale (Wright), who was bound and gagged during the proceedings, Morgen boldly brings to life the manic, misunderstood, laugh-to-keep-from-crying energy of that period and in the process humanizes a moment of real revolutionary fervor that grows more and more improbable with each passing year.