Revolution #126, April 13, 2008

Check It Out

Chicago 10: Docudrama Chronicles the Chicago Conspiracy Trial

We received the following “Check It Out” from a reader:

The new feature film Chicago 10 from director Brett Morgen is a must see and is an extremely entertaining and uplifting movie. The movie chronicles the Chicago Conspiracy Trial that followed the protests at the 1968 Democratic National Convention.

At the 1968 Democratic Convention, protesters, denied permits for demonstration, repeatedly clashed with the Chicago Police Department, who waged a week-long terror campaign that resulted in police riots witnessed live by a television audience of over 50 million. It was true, as the protesters chanted, “the whole world’s watching” and these events had a polarizing effect on the whole the country.

The film is an animated docudrama and uses archival footage from the actual events, interweaving this with an animated retelling of the courtroom transcriptions.

In the wake of debate over a “surge” of U.S. forces in Iraq, director Brett Morgen’s film feels particularly timely: it begins with Lyndon Johnson announcing troop escalation in Vietnam. From there, the film tells the story of the Chicago 8, the group of radical activists that included Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, and Bobby Seale. They were tried on a number of charges, including inciting a riot, in the wake of the protests that surrounded the 1968 Democratic National Convention. The animation is vibrantly colorful, while the old footage of the Chicago riots is horrifyingly bleak. It’s clear excessive force was used against anti-war protesters, and that the Chicago 8 were railroaded.

I read an interview with the director Brett Morgen in New York Entertainment (Chat Room). When he was asked, “What inspired you to focus on this particular moment in history?” he said:

“The idea for the film came out of a conversation I had with Graydon Carter in 2001 or 2002. The U.S. had already invaded Afghanistan and was talking about going into Iraq, and Graydon was like, ‘What’s wrong with your generation? When I was a kid, we had the Chicago 7—they were like rock stars, they were our heroes! What do you think about making a film looking back on all that?’ As we went into it, I said, ‘Look, this is one of the most heavily documented periods in contemporary American history, so if we’re gonna do it, what can we add to the canon of work?’ To me it was about doing something that would capture the experience and energy of Chicago something uniquely cinematic. A sublime, visceral attack on the senses.”

Then the interviewer said, “Everything about the movie feels very young—particularly the soundtrack. Was that your goal?” and Morgan said: “The movie is not about 1968. There’s no context. There’s a war going on, there’s opposition to the war, and there’s a government trying to silence that opposition.”

Morgen noted that the audience he wanted to tell the story to wasn’t around at the time, so he chose a youthful style, with animation, without narration or interviews. He wanted a soundtrack reflecting today and his cross-media technique, whose soundtrack includes Eminem and Rage Against the Machine, begins to feel like a natural extension of the archival footage. The audience is also treated to the voices of Mark Ruffalo, Roy Scheider, Jeffrey Wright, and Hank Azaria in dialogue taken straight from the court transcripts. The sputtering, enraged prosecutor might be voiced by Nick Nolte, but the animation design is clearly intended to resemble Dubya.

In this season of elections, the film has gotten panned by many critics. It’s been criticized for providing insufficient historical context, especially in that “anti-war” presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy is barely mentioned and “good guy” Democratic nominee Hubert Humphrey is not mentioned at all. What many of these critics have hated is that it straight up doesn’t promote relying on elections as a path forward. In interviews Morgen has said that he feels most social change is brought about by people. And what comes out in the movie is that the brave and determined street actions of the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention did infinitely more to end the war in Vietnam than all the attempts to promote “peace candidates” within a rigged electoral system. Abbie Hoffman, who is the central figure in the film, felt very strongly that no matter how left-leaning a Democrat, they were still part of the establishment and that change was not going to come from within.

This is no musty museum piece. As one critic said: “This is a funny, fiendishly entertaining salute to dissent in all its forms.” Another war is raging and another hotly contested convention is on the horizon—go see this film quickly before they yank it out of the theaters.

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