In 1968, America had to endure the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Bobby Kennedy, the Tet Offensive in Vietnam and the height of the counterculture war, which came to an ugly head with riots at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago.
Brett Morgen's, funny, sad, intense and provocative Chicago 10 is an impressive mixture of documentary footage of the riots at the convention and motion-capture animation of the subsequent trial of the Chicago Eight (the "10" refers to their attorneys, who were charged with contempt of court). Most famous among the eight were the "Yippee" leaders Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, along with Black Panther leader Bobby Seale.
The use of "rotoscope" animation coupled with dialogue from the actual court transcripts is a masterstroke. Not only does it offer a sense of the actual proceedings (no cameras were allowed in the courtroom), but the "cartoonish" look effectively conveys the nightmarish, absurd circus the trial became. Judge Julius Hoffman was clearly biased against the defense, Bobby Seale in particular. In turn, the defendants often turned the courtroom into their own personal improv stage and disrupted it at every turn, be it with costumes, paper airplanes or Viet Cong flags.
Hoffman, with his frizzy hair and wild - and often funny - antics, became the star of the trial. He and the others became amused and slightly bewildered at their celebrity (their celebrity reached such a height that, during recesses in the trial, the defendants were allowed to speak all over the country. One remarkable sequence shows Hoffman and Rubin boarding a plane after leaving the courtroom, flying to Los Angeles for a speech, then returning to Chicago by 8 a.m. for the trial to resume).
More effective than the animated trial sequences is actual archival footage of the protests and how they disintegrated into an ugly riot by day four. This remarkable footage takes the viewer to the front lines of the riots and stays as the tension between the protestors and the police finally explodes. The protest leaders were seemingly accurate when they predicted the mere presence of so many anti-establishment figures would prompt a violent reaction from the authorities and that "the whole world was watching." When the iconic CBS anchor Walter Cronkite announces in the film that the Democratic National Convention was convening in "a police state," the footage outside supports his statement.
The film operates on parallel tracks, alternating between actual footage of the convention and the animated trial, each spiraling downward into violence and absurdity. In what is a low point in American judicial history, Judge Hoffman's seething contempt for the outspoken Seale reaches the point where he has Seale physically bound and gagged in the courtroom, much to the dismay of the defense and the prosecution. It becomes painfully clear that the trial is an out-of-control farce in which the government was looking for someone to blame for those four humiliating days.
In the archival footage, the clash between protestors and police erupts in a mess of tear gas smoke and billy clubs. After the violence subsides, a profoundly moving and powerful shot shows an exhausted policeman sitting near a van; tears welled up in his eyes. His face tells the story: the country he knows and loves has seemingly collapsed.
The main weakness of the film: while it is clearly biased toward the defendants, it does not offer enough background information to make one truly care about them or their cause, nor does it offer enough info on all that occurred that led up to these events. The film briefly opens up with LBJ on TV proclaiming their will be a surge in troop strength in Vietnam, but then cuts to the riots and the trial. More footage should perhaps have been devoted the climate that created this situation and formed the passionate anti-establishment convictions of Hoffman, Seale, and the other defendants. It does not do enough to explain what drove some protestors to the point that they would proudly wave Viet Cong flags on the streets of Chicago.
Still, the film is worth seeing, both for the remarkable footage of the protests and the audacious use of animated footage in presenting one of the most absurd trials in recent American history (pre-O.J., of course). The four turbulent days and subsequent trial are an important part of social history that needs to be remembered and studied.
I was disappointed by the lack of extras with this DVD. The only extra included are a "Chicago 10 Remix" (just a glorified trailer), plus other DVD trailers. This subject and film is ripe for further study and background information, but on the riots themselves and the key players in the trial.
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