By Elbert Ventura
Dir. Brett Morgen, U.S., Roadside Attractions
As restless and flashy as the radicals it valorizes, Chicago 10 is an apocalyptic dispatch from the past refashioned as a slick flyer for the present. Brett Morgen’s account of the 1968 Chicago riots and the conspiracy trial against its organizers has a stylistic hook as catchy as its subject: it combines archival footage—some of it now iconic—with animated recreations of the trial and the incendiary events leading up to it. With both eyes trained on his audience, Morgen frames his movie as a piece of agitprop, an antiwar exhortation to dormant youth, complete with contemporary rabble-rousing songs (Rage Against the Machine, Eminem, Beastie Boys). The result is less history written with lightning than by lightning: the occasional flash illuminates, but a lot of times you’re just left in the dark.
The movie’s greatest asset is its subject. America in the sixties wallowed in a tide of blood that crested in August 1968. Decades later, these events still loom over the American consciousness like a malignant shadow. John F. Kennedy’s assassination seemed to inaugurate a parade of horror: the rising body count of both citizens and soldiers in Vietnam, the killing of Malcolm X, the eruption of dozens of American cities in 1967. Then, 1968: first Martin Luther King Jr., then Robert F. Kennedy, and finally the August riots in Chicago. A few thousand antiwar demonstrators, led by the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam (known as the Mobe) and the Yippies, the anarchic vanguard of the counterculture, squared off with Chicago law enforcement during the duration of the Democratic National Convention and found themselves on the receiving end of the night stick. In a period of mass protests and urban meltdowns, the Chicago riots were the most radicalizing, partly because of their sheer ferocity—the cops had not swung so hard, so indiscriminately at the left until then—and partly because of the presence of the media. During the night of Hubert Humphrey’s nomination came the climactic act in a days-long offensive against the protesters: the police surged, swinging sticks, throwing fists, spraying Mace, amid chants of “The whole world is watching!” and the glare of TV lights. As J. Hoberman wrote in The Dream Life, “the media is radicalized by its very presence,” an observation dramatized by Haskell Wexler’s remarkable Medium Cool, which remains the first and last cinematic word on the Chicago riots.
Nothing if not vivid, Chicago 10 conveys the utter strangeness of the sights of that summer. Signifiers of revolution—the menacing waft of tear gas, the alien hostility of police in riot gear, the images of bloodied and bruised citizens—were foreign to the suburban-raised protest movement then. It’s perhaps even more otherworldly from today’s affluent vantage. Rejecting the talking-head approach that has become the default mode for historical documentaries, Morgen shows a deft hand at organizing existing footage for maximum impact. Cross-cut with that strand is a more conventional drama, the 1969-70 trial of the protest organizers on charges of conspiracy. Based on actual court transcripts (no cameras were present during the proceedings), the movie reenacts the trial with animation and a roster of star voices (Hank Azaria, Mark Ruffalo, Dylan Baker, Nick Nolte, Jeffrey Wright, Live Schreiber, and the late Roy Scheider).
The title refers to the nickname given to the defendants, with a slight tweak. There was, in fact, a Chicago Eight: Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Dave Dellinger, Rennie Davis, Tom Hayden, John Froines, Lee Weiner, and Bobby Seale. (Seale, a Black Panther, would eventually be separated from the case, resulting in the Chicago Seven, the defendants’ mythical moniker.) The movie graciously includes defense attorneys William Kunstler and Leonard Weinglass in its count, thus making an even ten. A farcical event that defied fiction, the trial was presided over by Judge Julius Hoffman, a snarling square straight out of central casting. Perhaps the iconic moment occurs when Seale lashes out at the judge, demanding his own lawyer, then is promptly removed from the court only to be returned bound and gagged—an image no less dystopian than the state-sponsored violence of Chicago.
The trial’s circus atmosphere alone justifies Morgen’s resort to animation. If anything, the artwork never reaches the proper lysergic baroque—a shot of Allen Ginsberg floating in air notwithstanding, the animation is too staid and stilted, lacking the expressionism that the event demands. The art’s failure can be attributed to technology: the rotoscope-like animation is actually motion-capture—meaning the animation was computer-generated as opposed to painted on frame by frame. The result is animation that looks more like Polar Express than A Scanner Darkly, chilly where it should be hot.
More problematic is the movie’s indifference to historical accuracy. The opening title card gives a whiff of amateur-night: the year is 1968 and “the Vietnam War has been raging for over three years.” That laughably vague set-up is in keeping with the movie’s glib rendering of the event. Buying whole the idea that the state was a ruthless provocateur and that the protesters were blameless naifs, Morgen makes his use of animation unintentionally apt: it’s a visual correlative of his simplistic whittling of the event to two dimensions. The truth was, of course, more complicated. In the lead-up to the convention, the leaders of the Mobe (Dellinger, Davis, Hayden) and the Yippies (Hoffman, Rubin) rarely saw eye to eye—the former sober and serious about the protests to come (and itself torn between provocative and peaceful postures), the latter concerned with staging a “Festival of Life” that prized absurd theatrics above all.
In April of that year, a chill wind blew through the movement when Chicago Mayor Richard Daley brought down an iron fist on rioters following King’s assassination. By the time the convention rolled around, attendance reached a peak of only ten thousand, a fraction of turn-out at previous antiwar demonstrations (a fact not mentioned in Morgen’s movie). As Todd Gitlin recounts in his book The Sixties, Chicago was the product of tensions that had built up over the decade. Both sides were itching for a confrontation. Dellinger recalled that in his recruiting trips for the demonstration, the two most common questions were: “1) Is there any chance that the police won’t create bloodbath? 2) Are you sure Tom [Hayden] and Rennie [Davis] don’t want one?” Staughton Lynd, like Dellinger an antiwar activist of the old school, also raised doubts about Hayden’s intent: “[O]n Monday, Wednesday, and Friday [Hayden] was a National Liberation Front guerrilla, and on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, he was talking to Robert Kennedy and Galbraith and was on the left wing of the Democratic Party, and it just wasn’t together.” Hoberman quotes a Yippie organizer as taking the leaders’ logic a step further: “It was very few people and it looked like a billion people on television and it played in history as an epic moment…Chicago was exactly what [Abbie] always wanted it to be, a media event.” Gitlin notes that of the few thousand who showed, probably only a couple of hundred were out for violence (including agent provocateurs within the movement). But a couple of hundred were more than enough. Mayor Daley and Chicago’s finest were eager to oblige, and the fantasy of violence became real. Indeed, hyperreal—it was televised.
The state’s actions that August were odious and indefensible, but they were not unexpected—indeed, some on the left were banking on them. But how could a movement so driven by a hatred of violence—that was partly led by pacifists like Dellinger and Lynd—come to such a pass? Chicago 10 doesn’t come close to answering that question, a fatal shortcoming. From this vantage point, 1968 seems almost a fiction: Tet, King, the riots, and RFK play like highlights in a Ludovico treatment for the spiraling left. In the context of the year, and the decade, the mood for violence that settled on the left in the summer of ‘68 seems almost rational. If murder and upheaval are signals of system failure, then why bother fixing the system? The gradual erosion of hope underpins the eruption of Chicago. But Morgen fails to capture the despair behind the chants and clenched fists—he sees ’68 in purely inspirational terms. He admits as much: “This is not a history lesson about 1968,” Morgen has said. That line explains why his movie gives off more heat than light.
Engrossing but irredeemably glib—much like his previous doc, The Kid Stays in the Picture—Morgen’s movie ends up treating his audience like lemmings. It is, in the end, no more than a protest sign, something to rally the kids. Like a parody of the revolutionary manque, Chicago 10 mistakes tantrums for progressivism and self-actualization for politics, an outlook reflected in its elevation of the id-driven Hoffman and Rubin as star players (Hayden, Dellinger, and Davis, whatever you think of their respective stances, were more concerned about ending the war than having a party). Morgen even inadvertently embeds a reminder of his own shallow politics by using Eminem’s “Mosh” in one scene. If you recall, the video for that song featured an animated mob rising up and taking to the streets. But as the song reaches its end, intimations of street-fighting give way to . . . an exhortation to vote. Eschewing context, Chicago 10 leaves out important details, like polls showing the TV audience siding with cops instead of demonstrators, Nixon beating Humphrey in November ’68, and the war going on for another five years despite the demonstrations. Too stirred by the theatrics of protest, Morgen shortchanges his audience and history.