Chicago, Ill., 1968. It’s August, and the Democratic National Convention is about to take place. You’re young and pissed off at President Lyndon Johnson, his despicable war, and how he’s sending your generation off to die for their country thousands of miles away from home. So what do you do? Take it to the streets.
Park City, Utah, 2007. It’s January, and hot off the tails of an election that was supposed to change things, President George Bush decides to send thousands of American soldiers to fight in another land that’s also thousands of miles away. So what do you do? Well.
“If you listen to the pollsters right now, 72 percent of Americans don’t support the war. But if you go down the street and look around, you don’t see it.”
That’s Brett Morgen, director of “Chicago 10,” a documentary about the turmoil and youth movement surrounding the 1968 DNC and the infamous trial of the Chicago 7.
“When we started this film five years ago, the idea was to try to remind people about what it means to take a stand, and to get out there and raise your voice, and get heard.”
Morgan picked a good time to premiere “Chicago 10.”
“I was born a month after the convention, and the first time I saw the footage of the police riots in Chicago and the march to the Hilton, I was absolutely blown away by the courage, and the ability people have to put themselves in harm’s way.”
Morgen considers the film a call to arms. “I didn’t make this film for people who lived through it – they’ve done it. If there is going to be any change in this country, it’s going to be your generation.”
My generation? Damn straight. With the opening chords of Rage Against the Machine’s “Wake Up,” a song instantly recognizable to most of our generation, this message is apparent. It’s indeed a rallying call; “Chicago 10” is a positively electrifying documentary that engages your senses and confounds your emotions without ever being preachy, despite its clear-cut political agenda. And you’ve never seen a documentary like this; dramatic archival footage of the marches and images of police brutality set to some of the best known fist pumping protest music of our generation, including Eminem and the Beastie Boys.
What makes the film so special is that it tells a coherent story – there’s no narration and no experts speaking to the camera 40 years after the fact. Instead, the filmmakers perfectly integrate the historical film and audio recordings with an animated depiction of the courtroom proceedings taken from the original transcripts. It’s like “Waking Life” meets “Inherit the Wind,” with a political message just as important as the latter’s.
“Chicago 10” features some of the best actors out there today as the infamous 10 – The Yippies, Abbie Hoffman (Hank Azaria, “The Simpsons”), Jerry Rubin (Mark Ruffalo, “Collateral”), four members of the Students for a Democratic Society, Black Panther leader Bobby Seale (Jeffrey Wright, “Syriana”), and the group’s two attorneys – make for an incredibly entertaining film. But then again, so was the trial itself.
As Morgen put it, “the anti-war movement was a little bit stale at the time – Abbie and Jerry brought theatre and color into it.” It’s hard not to laugh at the back-and-forth dialogue between the whimsical defendants and Julius Hoffman (Roy Scheider, “Jaws”), the tight ass judge who presided over the court.
But before you know it, the film crosses the line from funny to troubling. As you’re lulled into a false sense of security by the good-natured humor of the defendants, the protests become more heated and the policeman more brutal. Your hands will be clenched in fists of rage as you see Seale, denied his constitutional right to defend himself, bound and gagged to his chair like an animal. It’s set to a score that recalls Wagner, or maybe Darth Vader, and it’s appropriate. As Walter Cronkite put it, Chicago during the convention was a police state.
Watching the movie is enough to make you want to be part of a cause. Within the first five minutes of the film, there’s footage of President Lyndon Johnson calling for more troops in Vietnam. He doesn’t use the words “troop surge,” but if you’re not making connections like this between the events of right now and the events of 40 years ago, then you haven’t been paying attention.