Directed Brett Morgen
Paramount Home Entertainment
Release Date: August 26, 2008
“A Democratic Convention is about to begin in a police state. There just doesn’t seem to be any other way to say it.” – Walter Cronkite
“Many of us may fight and die here. We recognize this as the vision of the founders of this nation. We recognize that we are America. We recognize that we are free men. Political pigs, your days are numbered. We are the Second American Revolution. We are winning. Yippie.” – Abbie Hoffman
It was one of the saddest and most sobering moments in American history. At the height of the Vietnam War with the nation sharply divided for the first time since the Civil War, the U.S. was going through a period of great social and political upheaval. The Civil Rights Movement and the Women’s Rights Movement were going full force. President Lyndon Johnson, a Democrat, had presided over the escalation of the burgeoning conflict in Vietnam into a full-blown war and was ramping up the draft to the point where no man was safe from conscription.
In 1968, Richard Daley, the mayor of Chicago, had just negotiated to have that year’s Democratic National Convention held there. That April, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis and Chicago had just been rocked by one of the worst riots the city had ever seen with eleven people dead (all black) and over five hundred injured. As the Democratic Party prepared to stage its biggest event they were going to have a few unwanted visitors in the form of the National Mobilization Against the War (MOBE) led by David Dellinger and Tom Hayden, and the more radical group the Yippies fronted by Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin. These two groups were descending on Windy City with the intention of leaving their mark on the Democratic Convention, and to top it all off they were bringing a few thousand friends.
Chicago 10, the new documentary from filmmaker Brett Morgen (The Kid Stays in the Picture — fantastic flick), follows the events that transpired during the five days the convention was held (August 25, 1968-August 29, 1968) and intercuts them with scenes from the controversial trial of the eight men held responsible for the riots and other civil disturbances in the Government’s eyes. Morgen’s previous film about the life of legendary movie producer Robert Evans utilized an intriguing editing style that blended documentary, vintage interviews, and an animated collage approach to presenting stills and other pictorial media.
In Chicago 10, Morgen uses the same methods to great effect but this time around he also fills gaps in the narrative with CGI-animated scenes depicting the actual 1969 trial and other documented events using original court transcripts and archival audio recordings. For animated scenes with no previous existing audio, Morgen employed a cast of recognizable actors to provide the voices of the key players in this real-life drama: Hank Azaria (The Simpsons) as Abbie Hoffman and Allen Ginsberg; Mark Ruffalo (Zodiac) as Jerry Rubin; Liev Schreiber (The Sum of All Fears) as the defense attorney William Kunstler; Jeffrey Wright (Syriana) as Black Panther Party president Bobby Seale, who knew Hoffman and was indicted along with him and the others even though he wasn’t involved in the demonstrations or even in Chicago at the time; Dylan Baker (Spider-Man 2) as the MOBE leader David Dellinger; Nick Nolte (Affliction) as the prosecuting U.S. Attorney Thomas Foran, who is animated to look suspiciously like our current President; and the late Roy Scheider (The French Connection) in one of his final performances as the presiding judge, and A-Number 1 hypocrite, Julius Hoffman (no relation to Abbie).
Morgen assembles these elements into an eye-opening (and eye-catching) document of the moment when it became evident that our once great democracy was on the brink of becoming the same kind of fascistic police state we always feared. The early scenes of MOBE and the Yippies preparing for the convention are juxtaposed with those of the Chicago police and the National Guard readying for their arrival by training in crowd control maneuvers. We get a sound idea of the varying aims of MOBE and the Yippies are: MOBE seems to want to stage a peaceful yet confrontational demonstration while Hoffman and company want to go straight for the throat and make the anti-war movement part of an ongoing living theater designed to break down the status quo and make everyone a performer whether they want to or not. The two mutual yet colliding philosophies are both put under a microscope during the trial in which the entire movement to end the Vietnam War and remove from power those who would gladly see it continue is seemingly being indicted.
With much joyful assistance by Hoffman and the Yippies, the trial of the Chicago Eight (later inflated to ten by Judge Hoffman — he convicted their lawyers of various contempt of court charges as well) itself became an anarchic spectacle. But the civil rights of the defendants were being ignored, in particular that of Bobby Seale. Seale had been railroaded on the charges to begin with and then he was denied the right to be represented by a lawyer (Seale’s lawyer was undergoing gall bladder surgery at the time and the judge refused to postpone the trial). In one of the most chilling scenes of the film Seale’s protests about being denied his right to even be heard lead the judge to order the baliffs gag Seale and chain him to his chair, a cold symbol of the racist repression that African-Americans were fighting against.
Next to that quietly horrifying scene the stand-out moments in Chicago 10 is the raw documentary footage of the many demonstrations and marches staged by the two groups and the brute force tactics employed by the Chicago Police and the National Guard. The images are so powerful that no narration is needed to put the events in context with the demonstrations staged today in protest of the Iraq War and the government’s many unchecked criminal offenses and the similar use of force by the police and military.
The events documented in Chicago 10 are underscored by music that didn’t quite come from that era but definitely has some of its roots in the socio-political turmoil of the time. Morgen makes excellent of several songs by Rage Against the Machine including covers of “Kick Out the Jams,” the signature rebellion anthem of the great early Detroit punk group MC5, and the Stooges’ “Down on the Street” (both tunes can be found on RATM’s massively underrated covers album Renegades). But the Rage song that becomes the film’s unofficial theme is their powerful “Wake Up,” previously best known as the track that was played under the closing credits of The Matrix. These songs are important sonic outcries against tyranny and oppression in the modern age and their inclusion in Chicago 10, although anachronistic, adds immeasurably to Morgen’s rich multimedia tapestry.
In closing, among the many documentaries released and to be released this year Brett Morgen’s Chicago 10 will surely stand out as one of the best. It’s an innovative and entertaining film that will be highly accessible for those with the desire to learn more about the history of the anti-war movement and the effect it’s had on Americans over the years. I highly recommend it.
Paramount Home Entertainment’s DVD presentation of Chicago 10 is very well done in the visual and sound department with an excellent widescreen picture and a Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track that highlights the film’s hard-driving music soundtrack to stunning effect.
The only extra features on the disc are a “Chicago 10 Remix Video Contest Winner” created by Gine Telaroli that was part of the film’s promotion. It’s a well done video but it’s nothing more than an alternate version of the film’s trailer. Rounding out the package are previews for Son of Rambow, Shine a Light, American Gangster: The Complete Second Season, The Kite Runner, and An Inconvenient Truth.
Have fun. Until next time I remain….BAADASSSSS! “All Power to the People”.