1968 has been called "the year that rocked the world," "the year from hell," and "the year the dream died." It was certainly one of the twentieth century's most chaotic, paradigm-shifting moments, with assassinations (Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X), riots, massacres, and a general sense of impending doom (or revolution) gripping the world. And most of it unfolded live via satellite. Indeed, some might argue that the story of 1968 is less about a revolution of thought as much as a revolution of images.
When thousands of protesters clashed with the Chicago PD (who responded with tear gas and indiscriminant clubbing) during the Democratic Convention in August 1968, it wasn't just an isolated civic disturbance. More than 50 million Americans were watching it unfold on TV, further polarizing a country that appeared to be ripping at the seams. Some sort of revolution was being televised, and it was both gripping and terrifying.
Chicago 10 is a film about the images. Ostensibly, it's a documentary about the Democratic Convention riots in Chicago and the subsequent "Chicago 8" trial against the protest organizers and hippie leadership for charges of inciting violence (The title Chicago 10 includes the two defense lawyers who were eventually also sentenced with contempt charges).
But this film is not as concerned with narrative or plot development as it is with immersing us in the mood and visceral power of the images that defined these events. There is a lot more going on here visually than your typical run-of-the-mill documentary. Directed by Brett Morgen (The Kid Stays in the Picture), Chicago 10 is a unique blend of 3D animation and real archival footage. The "reenacted" courtroom scenes are all done in a sort of motion-capture, videogame-esque animation of the Second Life variety—a fitting medium to portray a trial that was nothing if not a circus. During those reenactments, current actors provide voices for the original characters—for example, Hank Azaria voicing for Abbie Hoffman, Mark Ruffalo for Jerry Rubin, and Jeffrey Wright for Bobby Seale.
The trial scenes are just one part of the story, however, and in my opinion the more compelling scenes are the "actuality" portions from the front lines of the violent clashes. Culled from over 180 hours of archived 16mm footage and 14,000 photos, these scenes provide a shocking look into the real life progression of events that went down that fateful August week.
There is something jarring and immensely effective about the use of archival material in this film, unencumbered by talking-head interviews and omniscient narratives. The footage is compelling enough to stand on its own, and the filmmakers wisely let it do so. Footage of Chicago's Mayor Daley calling the protesters "terrorists" and instructing police officers to "shoot all arsonists" needs no smarmy Michael Moore setup or running commentary. The point is made in the historical record.
Unfortunately the animated portions aren't quite as convincing, even though they document true occurrences as recorded in the courtroom transcripts. I can imagine several viewers questioning the veracity of a scene in which Bobby Seale (the one black defendant of the eight on trial) is gagged, handcuffed, and dragged out of the courtroom by thuggish bailiffs. It's hard enough to believe things like this actually happened at the trial (though, in fact, they did); unfortunately, the animated rendering bestows little in the way of trustworthy historical verisimilitude. Still, the creative use of animation is stylish and cool, and the quick-cut editing rhythm back and forth between grainy archival footage and fanciful digital illustration does lend the film an attention-grabbing, music video pace.