2008 is not this generation's 1968. Let's get that matter straight, right away. Even if we can draw some parallels or see some similarities between now and then, the truth is that it was a very tragic year, and despite our penchant to fetishize the period and wish that our time could be so important and powerful, we need to pray no politicians are assassinated this year (the fact that one particular candidate has been compared to both MLK and RFK is especially upsetting) and we need to be thankful that there is no draft. But mostly we need to just move on from the '60s already and stop attempting to appropriate its events in order to heighten the relevance of the 2000s. 2008 is indeed a significant year on its own, or it could be if we let it exist as such.
That said, Chicago 10, the latest documentary from Oscar-nominee Brett Morgen (On the Ropes) is literally about events of forty years ago, though the filmmaker claims it is a film about now. Okay, sure, there may be some relevant themes, but imprisoning your film with such definite statements of purpose makes it possibly less enjoyable to the people who are tired of these weak and easy-minded juxtapositions. Without acknowledging the obviously apparent intent, Chicago 10 is actually appreciable as one of the most creative and entertaining documentary films in years. And it could indeed be viewed as significant on its own, if we let it exist as such.
The subject of the film is the 1969 trial of the "Chicago Seven", a group of defendants charged with conspiracy and inciting a riot during the previous year's Democratic National Convention (the 10 in the title refers to the Seven, plus an eighth defendant and their two defense attorneys). The story of this trial has been fairly well-documented before, both fictionally, as part of the Abbie Hoffman biopic Steal this Movie, and non-fictionally, in HBO's 1987 docu-dramatic re-enactment titled Conspiracy: The Trial of the Chicago 8. Like that latter made-for-cable movie, Chicago 10 uses the actual court transcript, but instead of having actors perform the trial, Morgen employs the somehow-still-trendy technique of motion-capture animation in order to portray the proceedings as they happened.
Additionally, this animation is used for other re-enactments where actual transcripts of real events were available, such as in the case of Hoffman's phone calls to a New York City radio station during the trial. However, the film is not completely animated. It might not even be mostly animated. Morgen also incorporates archival footage of the DNC and the protests, often inter-cutting between the relatively formal-attired convention attendees and the protesters. Sometimes, for even more contrast effectiveness, the film positions the opposing forces together, separated only by a split-screen. And though this may sound like an obvious idea to show an even more obvious disparity, it is actually fascinating to watch.
Also interesting are those animated court scenes, in which the players are voiced by well-known actors, few of which are easily recognized audibly, including Hank Azaria (as Hoffman), Mark Ruffalo (as fellow Yippie and defendant Jerry Rubin), Nick Nolte (the most identifiable voice, as prosecuting attorney Thomas Foran) and Jeffrey Wright (as Black Panther Party activist Bobby Seale, the eighth defendant who was eventually tried separately). Topping them all, though, is the recently deceased Roy Scheider, who gives one of the most amazing vocal performances ever as the crabby, codgery Judge Julius Hoffman. Hearing Scheider in the role will make you wish he had had a side career doing cartoon work.
One criticism about the animated segments -- and I admit this is little more than nit-picking -- is with the way Morgen extends them beyond the courtroom. There's no real practical problem with him employing the technique for the dramatizing of other events, but it seems more thematically appropriate to keep the animation to the time-period of the trial. That means the calls to the radio show are fine, because they take place at the time of the trial, but Morgen shouldn't be animating such flashbacks to 1968 as the speeches made during the protests and the meetings between the Yippies and Chicago authorities regarding the planning of the protests and rallies. It makes more sense to have only the ludicrous proceedings of the trial lampooned in cartoon fashion. Of course, we might not get to see or hear these interesting moments otherwise. And that would be a shame, because the animation is put to its best use during a 1968 meeting scene involving Allen Ginsberg (also voiced by Azaria), who is depicted floating in the air as if bridging the gap between this film and Richard Linklater's Waking Life.
To continue with the carping, the soundtrack is also something of a thematic mistake. The use of relatively contemporary music from artists such as Rage Against the Machine, Eminem and The Beastie Boys is an interesting decision, but it actually makes the documentary appear more dated than it means to be. Morgen may have wanted to really punch the issue of this story being relevant today, but the song choices are almost more 1998 than 2008. Understandably, this allows for a grab at the 1999 WTO protests in Seattle, and there's no doubting Morgen intends for such an overreaching reference. However, the lack of anything other than Eminem's 2004 anti-Bush track "Mosh" to exemplify today's equivalence of the '60s protest music we'd expect to hear in a film like Chicago 10 is unfortunate. Perhaps it is also a sad acknowledgement that we haven't actually got any great modern equivalents.
Chicago 10, though, is also a sad acknowledgement that we haven't a great modern equivalent of Medium Cool, that excellent docu-drama shot amidst and from within the 1968 DNC protests. If only we could have something as immediate as that film -- never mind that it wasn't released until a year after the events; the fact it required no reenactment of events is more noteworthy -- displaying our times in less allegorical fashion. Isn't this the age of instantaneous reflection?
I hate to complain at all about Chicago 10, because I'm as guilty of '60s fetishism as the worst culprits, and until last year's abysmal Across the Universe I could enjoy anything that put events like the 1968 DNC protests and the trial of the Chicago Seven/Eight/10 either up on a pedestal or down under a microscope. Yet I'm beginning to lose sight of the necessity behind such retrospective interests. I think it was also last year, while watching the similarly extraneous documentary The U.S. vs. John Lennon, that I started saying to myself, "cool, but who cares?" At least Chicago 10 is a riveting work that's hilarious, accessible and, sure, timeless in some ways. But still maybe a bit useless, too.
Check out James Rocchi's review of the film from the 2007 Sundance Film Festival here.