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.

Archival footage of Jerry Rubin

Archival footage of Jerry Rubin

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.

Animated shot of defendants Abbie Hoffman and Bobby Seale

Animated shot of defendants Abbie Hoffman and 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.

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Actual footage from the 1968 Democratic Convention

Actual footage from the 1968 Democratic Convention

As such, there is a sense that this film (released by Participant Productions, the trendy political brand in Hollywood these days) is directed primarily to younger audiences who have yet to engage politically with the same sense of passion and grassroots momentum as did the '60s generation. And of course, the timing of the film (in an election year, with the National Conventions just months away) is certainly not an accident. The filmmakers' hope, presumably, is that kids will see Chicago 10 and get stirred into action—taking to the streets to take down The Man, Yippie style. The anachronistic use of '90s music (Rage Against the Machine, Eminem, Beastie Boys) to accompany the '60s images only underscores this idea that the seething political furor of those days can be replicated in these.

But herein lies one of the film's biggest problems: its tendency to force-feed "modern-day application" rather than let it be a compelling glimpse into one of the most pivotal years (1968) in American history. I would have liked to seen better development of the major figures in the trial (Seale, Abbie Hoffman, David Dellinger, Jerry Rubin, Tom Hayden, etc.) and a little more in the way of historical context. The idea, I'm sure, is to make it seem vague and universal—as if something like this can and does happen in the 21st century. But the reality is that what happened that summer and that year was very unique to the zeitgeist of that time. This is not to say that protests and "taking it to the streets" can't happen today, just that we should understand why it happened then … before we try to sell it as a "must-have experience" to the youth of today.

Director Brett Morgen on the set

Director Brett Morgen on the set

The film feels most relevant when it ponders the image of culture and the morphing fusion of politics, spectacle, and celebrity. Abbie Hoffman is the central character in this discussion. In planning the Chicago demonstration with the other Yippie leaders, Hoffman routinely speaks of it as being "conceived as a total theater" in which "we are all actors." He knew better than anyone that the cameras would be recording and broadcasting the protests and that the "performances" of the protesters would be crucial to how the events would be spun. Hoffman's own persona in front of the cameras led him to become something of a celebrity in the late sixties. One of the most interesting sequences in the film shows Hoffman's rise to icon status—complete with a Rolling Stone magazine cover and paparazzi chasing him around with cameras flashing. He was a countercultural rebel who ironically became a mass-marketed commodity. In this way he forecast the future—the increasing importance of subversion/rebellion/counterculture for the ever-adaptive system of capitalism in America.

The implicit and somewhat cynical message of a film like Chicago 10 is that high-stakes politics and activism are, in some ways, constructions of the indifferent media who only care about high drama and higher ratings. As a result, we should trust nothing that we hear and resist being told what to do. On the contrary, we must rely on our own communities and personal will to make change happen, if it is going to happen. As Bobby Seale asserts in the last line of the movie: "All power to the people."

Talk About It

Discussion starters
  1. Where does the blame lie in what happened in Chicago in August of 1968? Does the movie portray heroes or villains? Or is everyone equally culpable?
  2. Can you envision riots on this scale occurring in America today? Why or why not?
  3. Abbie Hoffman consistently uses language about the media making politics and protest mere "theater." What does he mean by this, and how might this idea be relevant to today's media/political environment?
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  1. Do you feel like the film idealizes the notion of "taking to the streets" in protest? Do the theatrics and violence overwhelm our sense of knowing what exactly is being protested?

The Family Corner

For parents to consider

Chicago 10 is rated R for language and brief sexual images. It's an interesting and marginally insightful historical film that could be quite educational and inspiring to young audiences (teens and older) who may not be familiar with the events of 1968. That said, the film does contain quite a bit of profanity, some disturbing (because it's real) violence, and a few sexual images (including a cartoon orgy). It's certainly not a film for younger kids, but some older kids and parents might find it a helpful, history-based conversation starter.

What other Christian critics are saying:

Chicago 10
Our Rating
3 Stars - Good
Average Rating
 
(not rated yet)ADD YOURSHelp
Mpaa Rating
R (for language and brief sexual images)
Directed By
Brett Morgen
Run Time
1 hour 50 minutes
Cast
Jeffrey Wright, Nick Nolte, Roy Scheider
Theatre Release
January 18, 2007 by Roadside Attractions
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