The opening night film for Sundance 2007 is a curiosity - a mix of high-tech motion capture animation and nearly 40-year-old archival footage, real-life events and surreally-depicted flights of fancy. Chicago 10's an uneasy, oil-and-water mix -- and one leads to a movie that's woundingly set against itself. Director Brett Morgen's last Sundance film (which he actually co-directed with Nanette Burstein) was The Kid Stays in the Picture, from 2002; much like that film, Chicago 10 tries to be a fantasia based on reality -- or a depiction of the real through the fantastic.
In 1968, the Democratic National Convention in Chicago was beset by protests in the streets. The Vietnam War had the nation divided, and several youth leaders -- including Jerry Rubin, Abbie Hoffman and other activists/dirty goddamn hippies (depending on which side of the argument you were on) -- organized public protests against the war, against capitalism, against what they saw as America's failings. 8 of the leaders -- some of whom, like Hoffman and Rubin, were central organizers, and some of whom, like Black Panther Bobby Seale, were not -- were charged with inciting to riot and brought to trial in Chicago. Morgen's film incorporates you-are-there newsreel and found footage; more strikingly -- and, bluntly, less successfully -- it also uses motion-capture based computer generated animation to recreate scenes from the trial, with various name actors recreating court testimony.
The one problem with motion-capture is that, as anyone who's sat through The Polar Express with every instinct screaming that something very wrong is going on can tell you, the end results don't actually look like convincing people. In fact, they look just enough not-like people that you wind up obsessing over how unlike people the created images are. It's very hard to focus on what computer-generated William Kunstler is saying (in Liev Schrieber's round tones, no less) when all you can think is Christ, those teeth look wrong.
And that's a pity, because we should be listening to what CGI-Kunstler is saying, or at the very least some of what Chicago 10 has to say as a film. One thing the movie conveys remarkably well is just what the stakes were for America at that point in history. We see Lyndon Johnson announce the American fighting commitment in the Vietnam will be increased from 75,000 to 125,000 soldiers -- a "troop surge" -- and the effect that has on galvanizing opposition to the war. We see Chicago's streets under what is essentially martial law, hoping to keep people away from politics. And we see the bizarre contrast between the privilege of power and the passion of idealism as the defendants are placed in a judicial arena where the idea of someone using the word 'Fuck' in public is more obscene than the idea that American youth are dying by the hundreds in a futile, unwinnable war.
But then you start to obsess about just how they got that pixellated effect on Jerry Rubin's hair, and confirming for yourself that yes, Abbie Hoffman sounds a little like Moe the bartender from The Simpsons, because Hank Azaria is doing Hoffman's voice. And it's not just the computer-generated footage where Morgen takes liberties that draw away from the film's ideas and message -- for example, there's footage of The MC5's legendary park performance from Chicago in '68, but some mediocre modern band (God help us all, I think it may even have been Rage Against the Machine) covering the MC5's "Kick Out the Jams" on the soundtrack. And, again, it's hard to imagine who Chicago 10 is for -- people old enough to remember Bobby Seale and Abbie Hoffman will be put off by the creepy, newfangled animation and blaring music, while younger audiences will be put off by yet another celebration of the wonderfulness of Baby Boom generation's being shoved down their throats. Chicago 10 is an interesting film about an interesting time in the lives of some interesting people, but you can't shake the feeling that these real-life radicals might have been better served by a slightly less radical approach to telling their story.