Background: I've been meaning to see Brett Morgen's first film, 2002's The Kid Stays in the Picture, but despite the miss I've been excited about Chicago 10 for some time. I'm a big fan of historical anniversaries and 1968 was a year in American history without equal. The film, all documentary but part animated recreation, features the mostly recognizable voices of Hank Azaria, Mark Ruffalo, Nick Nolte, Jeffrey Wright, Liev Schreiber, and the late Roy Scheider. The animation is, I believe, in the same rotoscope style we were first dazzled with in Waking Life before it was ruined by those ridiculous "pity me and my outrageous wealth" Charles Schwab commercials. Anyway, Chicago 10 premiered to rave reviews at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival, and there's a possibility that it will be followed up with an oddly cast but sure to be entertaining live action version. Can all of those people really be involved in the same movie?
Synopsis: The first screen tells us the courtroom scenes are adapted from official court transcripts. This is important - it will be hard to believe later on. As Chicago and Mayor Richard Daley prepare for the 1968 Democratic National Convention, anti-war protesters from two separate groups, MOBE (National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam - yeah, I don't get the acronym either) and the "Yippies" make plans to non-violently demonstrate in Lincoln Park and the surrounding area. Their requests for a permit are denied, but the protesters show up in droves anyway. Conventional wisdom rings true, as what starts out as innocent marching and pranking ends up with tear gas, billy club beatings, and old ladies being shoved into paddy wagons. Led in spirit by the obnoxious and incredibly narcissistic Abbie Hoffman (Azaria), the other seven on trial in 1969 for conspiracy and intent to start a riot were Jerry Rubin (Ruffalo), David Dellinger, Tom Hayden, Rennie Davis, John Froines, Lee Weiner, and Bobby Seale (Wright). The film cuts back and forth between the trial animations and archival footage from the protests, much of which is pretty incredible to see. The riot scenes are tense and the trial scenes are showy. All the while, The Eight are held in high esteem by Morgen, while Judge Julius Hoffman (Scheider) is portrayed as a grumpy old jerk. Certainly the defendants weren't totally innocent, but their circus of a trial was hardly just. Even the defense lawyers (William Kunstler and Leonard Weinglass, thus making 10) served multiple year prison sentences for their "contemptuous" behavior in the courtroom. By the abrupt conclusion we're supposed to be left in a fit of rage, but I had more questions than I had answers.
+ The rare archival footage, though you could never see what started each violent outburst. Everyone's just standing around anxiously and then BOOM - beatings and running for lives.
+ The animation, for the most part. What can I say, I'm a sucker for rotoscope, and even the traditional animation was interesting to look at here.
- The use of Eminem's Bush-bashing song "Mosh." What, were there not enough war protest songs from the 60's to use here? Totally out of context, but in a funny spot right after Allen Ginsberg's "ommm" chants.
- Nick Nolte's gutteral, growling voice - the guy sounds like an animal. Literally, like a disgruntled dog or a dying alligator or something. Casting him here was unnecessarily distracting.
- That the driving rock music was an almost constant presence, even in the courtroom. Trust me, I can pay attention during a trial scene without needing to be "entertained." For that matter, was the animation even necessary? Couldn't it have simply been a live action reenactment with the same actors?
- Roy Scheider's voice, channeling Hans Moleman from "The Simpsons."
Writing - N/A
Acting - N/A
Production - 8
Emotional Impact - 8
Music - 4
Significance - 5
Total: 25/30= 83% = B
Last Word: I'm easily annoyed by people. People like Abbie Hoffman. Not because of how they act, but because of what gets lost when they act the way he did. What went missing here was the central message of their "protest." By the final march, their speeches aren't about the war at all, they're about "us" and "the pigs." This kind of inflammatory language was the style in the 60's to be sure, but that doesn't make it any less immature and ineffective. In this case, "the whole world" was watching, alright - watching people act like idiots for no good reason. If I'm sounding like Bill O'Reilly, I don't mean to. It's just that my hackles are raised whenever people place themselves in front of the message, and for all their good intentions (and constitutional rights), the protesters at the convention didn't accomplish as much as they could have with a more reasonable approach. Although I haven't mentioned him yet, what I just said could apply to Brett Morgen here as well, who's essentially made a cartoon out of cartoonish characters. I applaud his ambition to make an important story relevant 40 years later, but he doesn't fare much better than the protesters in making a convincing argument for anything. He's made a visual and auditory feast, but I'm hungry for some more substantive information in my documentaries, maybe flavored with some structure and just a dash of objectivity. It's incredible to say so about a documentary, but despite all the flashy panache of Chicago 10, I think the live action version (if it happens) may end up being the more important film.