In 1968, more than 10,000 demostrators protested outside the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Violent clashes between the Vietnam War opponents and the police broke out. It got so intense, Mayor Richard Daley eventually had to request military troops to restore the order.
Many of the demonstrators were arrested. Eight of them were indicted. Of that eight, seven were part of a radical, leftist group, known as the Youth International Party, or the Yippies. The Yippies were highly theatrical and highly anti-authority.
A man named Abbie Hoffman led the Yippies. He, along with Jerry Rubin and David Bellinger, were the most colorful and outspoken of all the protestors. They were eventually charged and put on trial for conspiracy and "inciting a riot" in 1969.
They sat side by side with four other Yippies, and because the Yippies championed civil rights and opportunities for African-Americans, those indicted seven were joined by Bobby Seale, the founder of the Black Panther Party. Those seven Yippies and one Black Panter became famously known as the Chicago Eight.
CHICAGO 10 is the new half-animated and half-documentary film that is about those eight men on trial in 1969, as well as the lawyer who defended them and the prosecutor who went after their group.
This film does not have the same purpose as a traditional piece of nonfiction. It's not simply trying to tell the story of this trial or merely recount the events that led up to it. Instead, the film tries to convey the emotions that people, especially young people were feeling at the time, in a way that it will connect or relate to young people today.
This film premiered at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival. I had the fortunate opportunity to see it when it screened at that year's SilverDocs Festival in Maryland. Afterwards, I got the chance to talk with the movie's director, Brett Morgen. Morgen was nominated for the Oscar for his 1999 documentary On the Ropes, the struggles and injustices faced by three black boxers in Brooklyn.
Morgen said that simply recounting the events in 1968, though they were by themselves exciting and incendiary, might not connect with the generation that proceeded, many of whom have no idea it happened. Morgen recognized that a lot of the same feelings exist in young people today, but they're merely directed at different things.
The film is based on court transcripts, audio recordings from that time, and tons of archival footage. Morgen then uses all of that to craft a screenplay of re-enactments of outrageous trial scenes that had become famous in their own right.
Morgen got Hank Azaria, who is a well-known voice actor from The Simpsons, to play Abbie Hoffman. He also recruited Liev Schrieiber, who many young people know from the Scream movies, to play William Kunstler, the Yippies' lawyer. He also gets easily recognizable voices like Nick Nolte and Dylan Baker as well.
To fill in the gaps, Morgen embraces the rotoscoped-style of animation to take us inside those courtroom scenes to further illustrate the total theater of the situation, and to show the absolute absurdity of the trial and charges against these guys.
News footage of children playing an aggressive game of cops-and-robbers also offers us a glimpse of the overreaction of the police. Morgen also finds radio station archival recordings and animates those.
He cuts back and forth between the animation and the documentary footage with editing that is very energized. I doubt anyone watching would be bored for a second. It's a perfect blending of reality and hyper-reality, so much so, you start to believe the water-colored animation is as real-looking as the old black-and-white footage.
Morgen is also very adept at building tension, but what most people will come away with from this film is its comedy. From showing us Bobby Seale, voiced by Jeffrey Wright, be handcuffed and gagged, to the face-off of the men in the blue helmets as the Yippies storm Lincoln Park on that fateful night in August, people will be struck by the juxtaposition of silliness and seriousness.
Instead of utilizing music of that time period, Morgen uses modern-day music like notably a song from Eminem in which the Grammy winner raps about the Iraq War. Here, Morgen is clearly trying to draw a distinction, a line between the zeitgeist then and the zeitgeist today that no one seems to be expressing as fervently now.
He didn't want to use traditional approaches like standard interviews of people who may have been alive during those years. He did not want to make the documentary an academic history lesson. He wanted to transpose the spirit of the time, and I believe he accomplishes it.
Five Stars out of Five.
Rated R for language and brief sexual images.
Running Time: 1hr. and 50 mins.