Review by Beth Gilligan
Posted on 25 January 2007
Source 35mm print
Features: The 2007 Sundance Film Festival
“This is not a history lesson about 1968,” stated director Brett Morgen before a screening of Chicago 10, the opening night film of the 2007 Sundance Film Festival. This disclaimer fell on some deaf ears (namely a few audience members and critics such as Variety’s Todd McCarthy, who felt Morgen was remiss in excluding figures such as Bobby Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy from the film), but those who took the director’s words at face value were rewarded in full by the bristling energy of this inventive, captivating documentary.
Chicago 10’s opening titles are accompanied by what sounds like a hail of machine gun fire, a noise that perfectly captures the chaos soon to unfold onscreen. The black & white archival footage that follows includes an impassioned address from President Johnson explaining his decision to escalate troop levels in Vietnam, one of Morgen’s many successful attempts to draw a contemporary resonance from his subject matter.
The heart of the movie is the group of demonstrators put on trial for conspiring to incite violence during the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Though only eight stood trial, the title of the film is a nod to defense attorneys William Kuntsler and Leonard Weinglass, both of whom were later charged with contempt of court. Cameras were not allowed in the courtroom during the proceedings, but rather than employing a series of talking heads to describe the scene, Morgen instead put a team of animators to work to render (based on official court transcripts) the trial. During the Q & A session following the screening, Morgen described his excitement in watching Errol Morris’ Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. in the very same auditorium at a previous Sundance, an allusion ostensibly unrelated to Chicago 10 but nevertheless instructive in that Morris’ The Thin Blue Line, with its flying milkshakes and slow-motion recreation of the Robert Wood crime scene, seems an obvious predecessor to and influence on Morgen’s work.
The documentary moves along at a brisk pace, with music (often from contemporary artists such as Beastie Boys, Eminem, and Rage Against the Machine) accompanying cartoon footage of the courtroom as well as archival clips of defendants such as Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin addressing the press and fellow organizers. Morgen’s clear infatuation with the defendants and their so-called Yippie movement does not detract from the film, but rather puts him in an ideal position to document their rock star status and capture the spirit of their movement. Unlike many films documenting a semi-recent historical event, there are no interviews with any of the living defendants recounting their experiences; Morgen chooses to keep his focus on his subjects as they were in 1968.
By the end of the film, Morgen’s decision to use animation during the courtroom sequences pays off on several levels, as the cartoonishness of the proceedings comes to a fore. Some of this is deliberate (as Abbie Hoffman says of the trial, “It’s all conceived as theater; everyone’s an actor”), some horrifying (as when Judge Julius Hoffman orders the sole African-American defendant, Black Panther leader Bobby Seale, bound and gagged in the courtroom), but in Morgen’s hands, it is also a galvanizing wake-up call for modern viewers and a testament to the anarchic spirit of youth movement of 1968.