The 1968 Democratic convention was the site of intense protests against the Vietnam war. Held in Chicago, then Mayor Daley made sure that the police and national guard were in place and ready to confront and control any demonstrators. Young people were drawn from all over the country in hopes of attending a music festival and making their voices heard. The television networks filmed as the police over-reacted and beat demonstrators, who chanted “The Whole World is Watching.”
After the convention was over, the federal government launched a conspiracy trial against an unusual assortment of eight defendants. The trial was a circus in many respects. The film “Chicago 10” provides a very entertaining, educational and enlightening history of the Chicago convention riots in general – and the conspiracy trial in particular. I have summarized quite a few reviews and also include a series of educational resources from the PBS companion website. Click below to learn why you need to watch this important film!!
Chicago 10 is that nearly perfect marriage of style — edgy, different — to documentary subject: 1968, that seminal year so celebrated in 2008 for changing the America that came after it. With footage that captured the protests and violent police overreaction to them at that year’s Democratic National Convention in Chicago and animation set to court transcripts and radio interviews to cover the trial of those who organized the protests, Chicago 10 brilliantly zeros in on a couple of landmark events.
Vietnam War protesters, the Youth International Party (Yippies), civil-rights protesters and others converged on Chicago in an organized effort to draw attention to their causes and, many say, provoke overreaction from the city’s dictatorial mayor, Richard Daley, and his club-happy cops. Tensions over an increasingly deadly and unpopular war, the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy all came to a head in the parks and streets of Chicago where the youthful left and older, fed-up conservative America met in chaotic clashes that showed a nation rending itself apart by generations.
Those who planned it kept using the word “theater” to describe what they were aiming for, an effort to “terrify the war machine” that they so hated but which they were expected to feed. As Brett Morgen’s film points out, charismatic clown Abbie Hoffman and his pal Jerry Rubin were merely the young, unwashed faces of a movement that was broader, older, long-established, and that had met, in secret, to plan “the Academy Awards of protests,” a “festival” of music and politics. On the other side, the Illinois National Guard and Chicago cops were chillingly equipping Jeeps with barbed-wire crowd-dispersers on their front bumpers.
Morgen focuses mostly on the circus that was the trial of Rubin, Hoffman, Tom Hayden and others in 1969. For that, he turns to voice re-enactors and computer-generated animation. Nick Nolte growls as the prosecutor, Tom Foran, outraged at the proceedings; Roy Scheider plays presiding judge Julius Hoffman as a clueless, snarling gnome; while the defendants (Hank Azaria voices Hoffman, Jeffrey Wright is Bobby Seale) taunt, protest and egg the state into making a fool of itself. Liev Schreiber plays leftist defense attorney William Kunstler as a seeming voice of reason.
“On March 23rd, 1968, at a camp in northern Illinois, the ‘movement’ met to discuss ‘actions’ relating to the Democratic Convention which will occur in late August in Chicago.” These words begin Brett Morgen’s vibrant, unconventional documentary “Chicago 10,” about the conspiracy trial of the so-called inciters of the riots that occurred during the 1968 Democratic National Convention. …
The actual trial was of the Chicago Seven: Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, David Dellinger, Tom Hayden, Rennie Davis, John Froines and Lee Weiner. The inflated number comes from an assertion Rubin made that Bobby Seale should be included (though the Black Panther co-founder’s case was split off), and that attorneys William Kunstler and Leonard Weinglass should be counted too. After all, they were sentenced for contempt of court. …
Animation is an elegant solution to the glitch of cameras having been barred from the courtroom. The archival footage Morgen did get is remarkable, especially given its fluid treatment by editor Stuart Levy and sound designer Paul Urmson Agile cuts from color to black-and-white archival footage of clashes in the streets to telling news reports and back prove yet again that talking heads and voice-over are not narrative necessities for nonfiction film. …
A lot of culture clashes fed those roiling times. This film spends its abundant energy on the face-off between dour patiarchs and their cocky symbolic sons. What could be more irony-laden than Judge Julius Hoffman (voiced by the late Roy Scheider) presiding over a trial starring Abbie Hoffman? “Chicago 10” is a bit too enamored of the chaotic, back-talking gestures of the court jesters. They aren’t typically the hard laborers of permanent change. But, boy, do they know how to put on a show.
A vibrantly crafted evocation of a convulsive moment in 20th century American history, “Chicago 10” is far less interested in offering a fresh, probing look at what took place on the streets during the 1968 Democratic National Convention and the circus trial that followed than it is in celebrating the stars of the anti-war movement and rallying the current generation to follow their examples. Brett Morgen’s agit-prop documentary augments its excellent assemblage of archival footage with capture-motion animation to rep the courtroom antics, all in the service of an ideologically loaded approach dedicated to asserting parallels between the Vietnam era and today. Commercial appeal to a young contempo audience is conceivable but decidedly questionable. …
In the very skilled hands of editor Stuart Levy, pic adroitly moves the action along on the parallel tracks of the convention protest and the trial, which hinged on the “intent to incite” by the accused. Hoffman often called what he was doing theater on a grand scale, and Morgen has taken this cue to present his principal players on a variety of stages, including, literally, that of a standup comic. For his part, Rubin once called the Chicago 7 trial a “cartoon,” and Morgen has taken him literally, rendering teeny snippets of the proceedings in stylized form that, thanks to the vocal readings, all too predictably weights matters entirely in favor of the defense while ridiculing the prosecution and, especially, the notorious Judge Julius Hoffman. …
Underlying it all, however, would seem to be an impatience and irritation on Morgen’s part with his own generation, and the one yet younger than himself, for not engaging the establishment today the way the Yippies did four decades ago. Pic’s acceptance will depend in large measure on whether or not young viewers take the implicit critique personally. Musical contributions lean heavily on modern, rather than vintage, pop music, and tech aspects are strong across the board.
How do you create a fresh take on perhaps the most mythologized period of recent American history? In writer-director Brett Morgen’s case, the answer is by ignoring or breaking all the rules of documentary film, and by smashing the historical vitrine that has long contained these events and dragging them out into the light. Sure, there’s historical footage in “Chicago 10,” and lots of it. But I’ve watched a lot of documentaries about ’60s politics without seeing any of this stuff.
During the legendary street confrontations between yippie protesters and increasingly brutal squads of Chicago police, Morgen blends color and black-and-white, switches from TV footage to amateur hand-held cameras and back again, sets the whole thing to more contemporary music. Yes, you heard that right. No Dylan, no CSNY. No “Revolution No. 9,” no “Street Fighting Man.” Instead, the battles of Lincoln Park and Grant Park are staged to the sounds of Eminem and the Beastie Boys. When you see the MC5 play for the assembled antiwar protesters, they sure sound great — but that’s because the band playing “Kick Out the Jams” on the soundtrack is actually Rage Against the Machine.
No video recordings were made at the infamous Chicago Seven trial, a spectacle of Soviet-scale repression, incompetence and corruption in which Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Tom Hayden and four other protest organizers were convicted under a recently cooked up “anti-riot ordinance.” (Morgen rebrands it as the “Chicago 10” trial because of the involvement of Black Panther Bobby Seale and lawyers William Kunstler and Leonard Weinglass, who were themselves sent to prison on contempt charges.)
Morgen goes even further here, re-creating long stretches of the trial from the transcript, using Richard Linklater-style motion-capture animation and actors reading the lines. Hank Azaria “plays” Abbie Hoffman, and Mark Ruffalo reads Jerry Rubin. Nick Nolte is the bombastic U.S. attorney, Thomas Foran, and Roy Scheider is Judge Julius Hoffman, who never even pretended to conceal his disgust for the seditious defendants. Living participants were interviewed about their memories of the trial (Weinglass actually reads his own dialogue), but one could argue that this material isn’t documentary at all. …
But for a complicated set of historical, generational and ideological reasons, the narrative we have inherited goes like this: The ’60s protests were huge, idealistic and earth-shattering; all subsequent protest is a lame imitation. One principal reason for this is that latter-day protest movements have not produced charismatic, media-friendly, middle-class leaders like Hayden, Hoffman and Rubin. As has often been argued, those figures have not emerged recently because middle-class college kids are in no danger, at least so far, of being drafted. …
Morgen clearly wants his movie to carry a galvanizing message to the Youth of Today. And who knows? Maybe it will. That’s not for a passel of parka-clad showbiz insiders trapped in an overpriced ski resort to decide (suckers for social relevance that we are). Even as the thermometer dropped below 10 degrees Fahrenheit on Thursday night, everywhere you went in Park City people clustered in little groups, murmuring over “Chicago 10.” (There was an especially good critics conclave in the produce section at Albertson’s.) I’ll report back soon on what ought to be an action-packed weekend, but the big, silly party in this frigid little town is off to a hot start.
Thirteen months after Hubert Humphrey was nominated for president in a hall ringed with barbed wire and surrounded by National Guardsmen, amid four days of violent clashes between Chicago police and anti-war protesters, the government charged eight political activists—Dave Dellinger, Rennie Davis, John Froines, Tom Hayden, Abbie Hoffman, Bobby Seale, Jerry Rubin, and Lee Weiner—with crossing state lines as part of a conspiracy to incite riot. Their carnivalesque trial, which ran from late September 1969 into February 1970, resulted in five convictions (later overturned) and citations of contempt that included defense lawyers William Kunstler and Leonard Weinglass—hence Morgen’s “10.”
Arguably the greatest media spectacle of the High ’60s, the convention telecast included ample street violence— demonstrators chanting “The whole world is watching” as helmeted cops bashed their brains. Scarcely a year later, the event was replayed in Haskell Wexler’s innovative docudrama Medium Cool and Norman Mailer’s Miami and the Siege of Chicago—not to mention the most elaborate of these re-creations, the Chicago Conspiracy Trial, produced by Nixon himself (though Chicago 10 barely mentions him). The trial ran for nearly five months and enjoyed an immediate afterlife: The Tales of Hoffman, a 300-page sampling of the trial record, was published as a mass-market quickie a month after the proceedings ended.
If the convention was a tragedy, the trial was a farce. Revisiting events at once overly familiar and impossible to imagine, Morgen’s impure mix of documentary footage and rotoscopic computer animation is unrelenting Sturm und Drang. Chicago 10 has a deliberate and irritating absence of context but a full appreciation of antics—as when the Yippie defendants Hoffman and Rubin appeared in judicial drag, and, forced to disrobe, Hoffman revealed a Chicago police uniform underneath. These shenanigans were equaled only by those of his 74-year-old namesake, Judge Julius J. Hoffman, who sustained prosecution objections and overruled those of the defense at a ratio of perhaps 100 to 1. Taunted throughout, most powerfully by Black Panther co-founder Seale, the judge rarely failed to take the bait. (What goes around . . . : Nine years earlier, Hoffman had ruled in favor of the literary magazine Big Table, charged with obscenity for publishing excerpts from Naked Lunch.)
Moving back and forth between the riots and the trial, the movie delivers ample tumult with no more historical perspective than if produced in 1970. In a sense, it’s the belated realization of the trippy guerrilla flick that Hollywood exile Nicholas Ray tried to make at the time—a mélange of 16mm, Super-8, and documentary footage mixed with a studio re-creation of the trial where the Conspiracy, as they were called rock-band-style, played themselves. …
For the Conspiracy, the trial was not just a show trial but the greatest show on earth—a real-life movie that would galvanize the youth of America, if not the galaxy. One of Ray’s assistants recalled that Hayden, Hoffman, and Rubin “saw themselves as potential James Deans.” Morgen concurs. His previous documentary, The Kid Stays in the Picture, fawningly celebrated producer Robert Evans, and Chicago 10 is no less glamorizing: There’s more than a bit of A Hard Day’s Night and Don’t Look Back in its presentation of the most garrulous, Abbie (Hank Azaria), and his sidekick, Jerry (Mark Ruffalo). Abbie, who also does stand-up shtick, is the movie’s stellar wise guy, as Seale (Jeffrey Wright) is its heroic victim—but, now as then, the most fascinating performance is that of the fussy, name-mangling, imperious little judge.
Why does documentary filmmaker Brett Morgen use Chicago 10 as the title for his collage-like account of the trial of the so-called Chicago Seven? In the name of inclusion: The “10” comprises not just the seven major anti-war dissidents charged with inciting a riot at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, but also their lawyers William Kunstler and Leonard Weinglass, and Black Panther co-founder Bobby Seale, who was eventually tried separately.
Despite its title’s precision, Chicago 10 focuses more closely on the mood of the times than factual specifics. Morgen cuts between archival footage of the events leading up to the demonstrations outside the convention hall and animated re-creations of the trial with actors reading from the courtroom transcript, including Hank Azaria as pranksterish radical Abbie Hoffman and the late Roy Scheider as cranky, doddering Judge Julius Hoffman (no relation). …
Chicago 10 occasionally blurs specific details, but it captures the era’s tumultuous feelings and political agendas. The overall effect resembles Morgen’s previous documentary The Kid Stays in the Picture, a self-mythologizing account by Hollywood producer Robert Evans. Morgen’s films are less like photographic portraits than mosaics of strong personalities and archetypal episodes. It’s like piecing together a plate glass window after history has already thrown a brick through it.
The 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago — to say nothing of the violent confrontations between police and antiwar protesters that simultaneously seethed in the city’s parks and streets — can hardly be called an obscure historical event. Demonstrators chanted, “The whole world is watching,” and so it was. Images of blue-helmeted officers and their long-haired antagonists have been part of the collective memory ever since.
Some of the best accounts of what happened, what it felt like and what it all seemed to mean, were produced while the smell of tear gas still hung over Michigan Avenue. The nostalgic or the curious can seek out Norman Mailer’s “Miami and the Siege of Chicago,” for example, which analyzed events inside and beyond the convention hall with its author’s characteristic, and in this case perfectly appropriate, blend of intellectual grandiosity and journalistic acumen. …
The addition of anachronistic music selections, including tunes by Eminem and the Beastie Boys, seems like a bid for contemporary relevance, as does the use of animated renderings of the conspiracy trial, complete with voice-overs by famous actors. The script, adapted from official transcripts of the conspiracy trial, is full of found absurdity and unlikely profundity. It is fun to hear Hank Azaria doing Abbie Hoffman, Nick Nolte growling as the lead prosecutor, and Roy Scheider, in one of his last film roles, impersonating Judge Julius Hoffman, no relative of Abbie’s.
The animation itself has a slapdash, lurching feel. More powerful are the documentary segments interwoven with the recreated trial, which bring back not only Mr. Hoffman, Jerry Rubin and the other media stars of antiwar militancy, but also their principal antagonist, Mayor Richard J. Daley, with his flat Midwestern vowels and epic jowls.
Watching “Chicago 10,” you can catch a soupçon of the era’s dominant moods: there is the rage both of inflamed youth and of the affronted forces of law and tradition; there is the heady mixture of political grievance and newfound freedom; and there is panic and exhilaration, once things start getting ugly.
“It’s total theater; everyone’s an actor,” Abbie Hoffman observes. Mr. Morgen certainly grasps this aspect of both the demonstrations and the trial that followed, and he captures the cross-pollination of political activism and celebrity culture that made stars out of Mr. Rubin, Mr. Hoffman and their co-defendant, the Black Panther leader Bobby Seale (voiced by Jeffrey Wright). (At the time, they were known as the Chicago Eight. Mr. Morgen adds their lawyers, William Kunstler and Leonard Weinglass, to arrive at the title of the film.)
Chicago in late August 1968 was a madhouse. You could make the argument that any town hosting a political convention in America is bound to turn a bit odd, but the Democratic Convention of 1968 was a special case, with Mayor Richard J. Daley holding court inside the International Amphitheatre, tens of thousands of Vietnam War protesters assembling outside, and an enormous phalanx of policemen and National Guardsmen standing between them, nightsticks and tear gas in hand. Add to this already volatile mix the anarchic absurdity and comic indignation of the revolutionary Yippies, led by clown princes Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, and it’s a wonder the city’s still standing. …
Facing criminal conspiracy charges, Hoffman and his merry band of long-haired, anti-imperialist jesters turned Judge Julius Hoffman’s courtroom into their own Marx Brothers movie, thumbing their noses at the prosecutor, dressing in judges’ robes, blowing kisses at straitlaced jury members (all of whom, Hoffman says, must have been shipped in from the “back pages of the Ladies’ Home Journal”), and laughing at the threat of lengthy prison sentences. With an exceptional cast giving voice to the Yippies (including Azaria and Ruffalo), their lawyer William Kunstler (Schreiber), and the trial’s eighth defendant, Black Panther Bobby Seale (Wright), who was bound and gagged during the proceedings, Morgen boldly brings to life the manic, misunderstood, laugh-to-keep-from-crying energy of that period and in the process humanizes a moment of real revolutionary fervor that grows more and more improbable with each passing year.
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. …
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.
The creative force behind this film is Brett Morgen. He wrote, directed and co-produced the movie with a unique style in all arenas. His previous work experience has been with more conventionally made documentaries including ‘The Kid Stays in the Picture’ about Hollywood mogul and Paramount producer Robert Evans. Here he throws almost everything that you would learn in a typical film school class to the side as be blazes a new path for others to follow. Common wisdom would mandate that Morgen immerse his audience in the time period through the use of the music that defined the era. Instead he relies on more modern music combining it with the often strange form of animation. He does ground the film with some more typical news reel type footage abut that is only to set the stage. Many have called the trial of the Chicago 7 a circus so it is only fitting that this rendition of the events takes it on an animated look and feel. Much of the dialogue used for the courtroom scenes was taken directly from the transcripts.
Younger viewers may be amazed at the antics that YUPPIE leaders Abie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin tried in open court. They had little respect for what they considered to be a rigged justice system and they may no attempts to hide it. Morgen combines the live action and animated sequences in a robust fashion. He stylistic choices may be out of the usual standards but he makes them work and work well. He paces the film in such a way that there are no dead spots; the events unfold, surround the viewer and drawing them in. His decision to animate the court proceedings is actually inventive and well conceived. This was such an out of the ordinary trial that a straight re-enactment would hardly do justice to the antiestablishment attitudes of the defendants.
The film begins with a title card that places the time period under consideration in perspective; 1968 the Viet Nam War has been raging for three years and 19,272 Americans have been killed and countless more have been wounded. A film clip of President Lyndon Johnson is shown; he is announcing the number of Americans in the war will be increased from about 75,000 to over 120,000 and that additional forces will be needed later. At this time he also increased the monthly draft call to keep pup with the demand. To those of us with our draft cards in our pockets this was not good news at all. There is some grainy black and white footage that chronicles the meetings of two of the main protest groups; The National Mobilization Against the War (MOBE) and the Youth International Party (YIPPIE). They were there to discuss just how they would protest the war during the Democratic National Convention. Their stated goal was to avoid chaos during the protests but as history would show that ideal was not achieved. There were going to Chicago to show their discontent with the current administration’s policies.
After the initial credits we are taken via animation to the United States District Court of Chicago in 1969. The style of the animation is a cross between the SIM games and rotoscoping giving a semi realistic, semi surreal look and feel. The title of the film comes from a now famous quote by Jerry Rubin “Anyone who calls us the Chicago Seven is a racist. Because you’re discrediting Bobby Seale. You can call us the Chicago Eight, but really we’re the Chicago Ten, because our two lawyers went down with us.” Thomas Foran, the prosecutor starts his opening remarks to the jury pointing out that the men on trial came to Chicago with the intent to start riot. Their crossing of state lines to do so constituted a federal offense. What follows is a mixture of film clips and the animation starting with Abby Hoffman’s statement that this is a trial based on the state of mind rather than actual actions.
This is a strange but compelling film that is important to watch and discuss. The issues here are far beyond just what happened in Chicago in August of 1968 they speak to the constitutional rights of free assembly and free speech. With America once again engaged in an unpopular war overseas it is vital to remember those days and how the war may have changed but not the issues. No matter where you fall in your opinion of the debate this film will be one that should not be missed. It will take an open mind to watch this film not only for the presentation but for the content but it is well worth it. The DVD is from Paramount and should be a part of any serious collection.
The winter dumps are officially over: The first great film of 2008 has arrived. “Chicago 10,” Brett Morgen’s audacious, ambitious and improbably affecting chronicle of the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago and the notorious trial that followed, not only brings to life one of the sorriest chapters in American cultural and political history, but breathes new life into a film genre that usually has all the imagination and verve of a visit to Madame Tussauds.
A spirited and often inspired mash-up of motion-capture animation, archival footage and a terrifically anachronistic soundtrack, “Chicago 10” stars the voice talent of Hank Azaria, Mark Ruffalo and Jeffrey Wright as Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin and Bobby Seale, who with five other activists were arrested on conspiracy charges during the days of outrage and violence that broke out between antiwar demonstrators and Chicago police (by way of Mayor Richard J. Daley’s poisonous machine) outside the convention. The trial became a joke, with the erratic Judge Julius Hoffman (the late Roy Scheider) presiding; Morgen calls his movie “Chicago 10” because much of the drama of the story came from the defendants’ attorneys, the legendary William Kunstler (Liev Schreiber) and Leonard Weinglass (who voices himself).
Cutting between the animated footage of the trial (written from transcripts) and searing images of the demonstrations and their tragic outcome, Morgen plunges viewers completely into the anarchic, exhilarating, finally ambiguous world of 1968 America; his final stroke of genius is his choice of music, which includes a breathtaking use of Eminem’s “Mosh.”
Brett Morgen’s absurdly engaging docudrama “Chicago 10” has a specific mission: to jolt inert young audiences of the early 21st century into fresh outrage and activism. If the movie has to be entertaining to do the trick, OK. The result is Grade-A agitpop, a mixture of archival footage and cheeky, creative animated reconstruction that’s funny and frightening in equal measure. Forget the R rating; if your kids want to know what the ’60s were about, here’s a start. You might welcome the refresher course, too. …
It was a show trial, all right, but not the show the government expected. The defendants represented various distinct factions of the radical left: David Dellinger of MOBE (the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam) was a follower of Gandhi’s nonviolent tactics, while Tom Hayden and Rennie Davis came from the much more confrontational Students for a Democratic Society. Seale was a Black Panther; John Froines and Lee Weiner were tangential figures charged with creating incendiary devices (stink bombs, to be exact).
Then there were the Yippies, represented by Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin – counterculture pranksters who turned every waking moment into anarchist improv. “We believe politics is how you live your life, not who you support,” said Hoffman in one of his more sober moments. He was a pop star in search of a stage; the trial proved to be it.
Morgen tackles this broad, busy subject in two distinct styles. He painstakingly stitches together historical footage of the lead-up to the convention and the riots themselves, documenting the day-by-day escalation into chaos without resorting to narration or talking heads. Because no cameras were allowed at the trial itself, “Chicago 10” takes the novel approach of animating the court transcripts, using voice actors and the slapdash, semi-photorealistic cartoon style of movies like “Waking Life” and “A Scanner Darkly.”
These two interwoven strands, straight documentary and dramatic re-creation, build momentum together, creating a sense of a society spinning out of control. If the riots were a tragedy, the trial was pure paranoid farce that brought out the extremist in everyone. Hoffman (voiced by Hank Azaria) and Rubin (Mark Ruffalo) show up at court wearing jurists’ robes and blow kisses that the jury is instructed to ignore. Poet Allen Ginsberg (Azaria again) chants “Om” from the witness stand. The collision between straight America and the counterculture has never seemed more surreal.
Using archival film, recordings of radio interviews and trial transcripts brought to life by actors giving voice to animated versions of real people, “Chicago 10” imparts a vital freshness to a series of episodes that seem more pertinent today than at virtually any time in the 40 years since they transpired.
The facts, briefly: In early 1968, members of several radical groups decided to stage demonstrations against the Vietnam War at the Democrats’ Chicago convention. City authorities tried to dissuade them from attending but they assembled anyway, thousands of them, and they clashed with police more and more frequently and more and more violently, climaxing in a full-blown police attack on unarmed protesters. The appalling melee led to the indictment on conspiracy charges of eight of the alleged ringleaders, including Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Tom Hayden and Bobby Seale. A similar number of policemen also faced charges. …
If the film can be faulted for being quick with some facts and issues, it nevertheless conveys a vibrant sense of the era and the events. The archival footage speaks for itself, of course, but the decision to render the courtroom sequences in rotoscoped animation with such actors as Hank Azaria, Jeffrey Wright, Nick Nolte and the late Roy Scheider creates a vivid frisson. The facts come to life, but so do the emotions of the moment.
Ultimately, Morgen recaptures the unreal air of the whole chapter; you can imagine young audiences understanding, perhaps for the first time, what the fuss was about (particularly as Morgen uses contemporary pop music for his score and not yet another trotting-out of “Get Together” or “White Rabbit”). There are lessons here still worth learning. After all, another war is raging and another hotly contested convention is on the horizon.
The film is an idiosyncratic effort to reclaim and perhaps redefine the spirit of the 1960s. The film makes the case that the Yippies — more pranksters than politicians, more punks than hippies — provided a lasting template for revolutionary engagement through anarchy and ridicule.
“Chicago 10” has met with mixed reactions from the dwindling number of people who saw the trial firsthand, and its reception at the Sundance Film Festival last year was lukewarm. (“The pic opened the fest,” Variety reported, “but by the next day its buzz was all but dead.”) Enthusiasm from younger leftists eager for inspiration, on the other hand, seems high.
In addition to the trial sequences, the film presents raw archival footage of the Chicago police department’s savage response to the protests. Brett Morgen, the film’s writer and director, married that footage with throbbing music from Rage Against the Machine, Black Sabbath and the Beastie Boys, forgoing the usual ’60s soundtrack.
Mr. Morgen, who co-directed “The Kid Stays in the Picture,” about the film producer Robert Evans, was born two months after the convention. In an interview in his office in Rockaway, Queens, a block from the beach and above a store that sells sneakers, he said he had aimed to avoid treating a turning point in the history of the counterculture as sacred ground. “The world simply did not need another movie about the ’60s made by someone from the ’60s,” said Mr. Morgen, who is scruffy and longhaired but not especially mellow. “We weren’t making a movie about 1968 per se. I don’t want to smell patchouli. I don’t want to see bell-bottoms.”
Graydon Carter, the editor of Vanity Fair and a producer of “The Kid Stays in the Picture,” produced “Chicago 10” with Mr. Morgen. He said it was the product of political frustration in the early days of the Iraq war — an anger that has infused his monthly editor’s note and the contents of his magazine — and an attempt to rouse young people to action. “I became incredibly upset,” he said, “that this young generation of Americans seemed to have no interests at all in the origins of the war in Iraq, the rightness of the war or the possibility of ending the war.”
Mr. Morgen focuses on the comic moments in the trial, of which there were many, and on Judge Hoffman’s decision to bind and gag Mr. Seale, the only black defendant, after he insisted on defending himself. The film is scrupulously accurate, relying on 22,000 pages of trial transcripts. But it is also highly selective, distilling that transcript to about 30 pages of script. …
Mr. Morgen said he reviewed 180 hours of archival footage and chose scenes with visceral power. But some of the omissions are jarring: Robert F. Kennedy, assassinated that June, is not mentioned, and nor are the names of the candidates vying for the nomination. That was deliberate, Mr. Morgen said, and part of an effort to reach a young audience. “I didn’t want to make a film that read like a Cliff’s Notes to an era,” he said. Finding the right way to convey the story of the trial was grueling, Mr. Morgen said. There was, first of all, too much information: eight defendants facing a complex indictment. …
There may soon be a second take on the trial, this one by Steven Spielberg, in a feature film that would almost certainly be more conventional and accessible than “Chicago 10.” The script for the film, “The Trial of the Chicago Seven,” is by Aaron Sorkin (“The West Wing” and “Charlie Wilson’s War”), and Mr. Spielberg is said to be considering Sacha Baron Cohen for the role of Abbie Hoffman and Philip Seymour Hoffman to play William Kunstler.
Mr. Morgen said he was delighted. “We’ve been consulting with them and providing them with our databases,” he said. “We made this movie to try to get the story out. A documentary ultimately is going to have a limited audience. A Spielberg film is going to have a limitless audience.”
Director Brent Morgen says he wanted to find a fresh way of telling the story, so in a way he went back in time. He searched for archive film, and found a treasure trove. There were more than 150 hours of 16mm film shot around the demonstrations. He got film from TV stations, and from ordinary people. Morgen found sometimes many people had filmed in the same places, providing different angles on key events.
“It’s as if we have 50 cameras in the field,” he says. “And we spent three years collecting all this media and really what we have been able to do 40 years after the events is reconstruct them in a way that nobody has ever seen.” He also found hours of interviews with the defendants in the conspiracy trial of protest leaders. …
Morgen also had the transcript of the federal conspiracy trial. As he read he came across another confrontation as an 84 year old judge tried to control the wild and mouthy defendants. “The trial provides a lot of comic relief, if you will, from the angst and the chaos and the horrors that the archival footage presents,” Morgen says. But he had no film of the trial. Cameras weren’t allowed in the courtroom. Morgen then recalled a comment by one of the other defendants, Jerry Rubin. “He referred to the trial as a cartoon show as many of the defendants did throughout the trial. It seemed like a really fun way of bringing this trial to light,” Morgen says. Brett Morgen said working on “Chicago 10” has made him confront the strength of his own beliefs and convictions.
Chicago 10 is currently being shown on PBS as part of the Independent Lens Series. There is also a very useful companion website for those wishing to learn more about the trial, participants and times. I have included the following:
- Short Biographies of Chicago 10
- Media, Organizing, Protesters and Police
- Filmmaker Statement by Brent Morgen
- The Making of CHICAGO 10
- In Their Own Words
- Educational and Discussion Resources
Short Biographies of The Chicago 10
Originally eight protester/defendants were indicted by the grand jury at the Chicago Conspiracy Trial. After Judge Julius Hoffman ordered that Black Panther leader Bobby Seale be bound and gagged for his outbursts, Seale was removed from the case and sentenced to four years in prison for contempt. After a mistrial and a new trial, the seven remaining defendants, along with defense attorneys Leonard Weinglass and William Kunstler were charged for contempt of court. CHICAGO 10 filmmaker Brett Morgen chose to credit not only the defendants, but the defense attorneys, as well. He paraphrases defendant Jerry Rubin: “‘Anyone who calls us the Chicago Seven is a racist, because you’re discrediting Bobby Seale. You can call us the Chicago Eight, but really we’re the Chicago 10, because our two lawyers went down with us.’” Morgen took that as an opportunity “to appropriate the story, re-brand the story.”
- David Dellinger – The MOBE – David Dellinger attended Oxford and Yale Universities and was studying theology at Union Theological Seminary when he was drafted to fight in World War II. Although he was entitled to deferment as a conscientious objector, he served three years in prison for refusing to register for military service. Dellinger protested the Korean War and the Bay of Pigs Invasion and participated in hunger strikes and freedom marches for civil rights before becoming chairman of the MOBE (the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam) at the outset of the Vietnam War. A lifelong pacifist and activist, Dellinger passed away in 2004 at the age of 89.
- Abbie Hoffman – Yippie – After graduating from Brandeis University and earning an M.A. at UC Berkeley, Abbie Hoffman worked as a psychologist at a state mental hospital in his native Massachusetts. He became radicalized when he joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and traveled to the South to join the struggle for civil rights. As the author of Steal This Book and Revolution for the Hell of It, he encapsulated the absurdity and audacity of the Yippies, or the Youth International Party, of which he was a leader. In 1974, Hoffman became a fugitive, surgically altering his appearance and taking on the identity of “Barry Freed” to elude charges of cocaine possession. In 1980 he capitulated and served two years in a work-release program before continuing his activist work. Arrested dozens of times for drug possession as well as dissent, Hoffman died in 1989 in what was later ruled a suicide.
- Jerry Rubin – Yippie – The son of a union activist, Jerry Rubin grew up in Cincinnati and received a college degree in sociology. After spending time in Israel, he headed to California for graduate study and became involved with the Free Speech Movement in Berkeley, where he even ran for mayor. In 1965, Rubin founded the Vietnam Day Committee, one of the era’s earliest protest groups, and was subpoenaed by the House Un-American Activities Committee, solidifying his rank as a superstar of the anti-war movement. He explored New Age spirituality before becoming an entrepreneur, businessman, and investor in the 1980’s, eschewing his former Yippie roots for a new Yuppie identity and working on Wall Street. Rubin died in 1994, after being hit by a car while jaywalking in Los Angeles.
- Rennie Davis – Students for a Democratic Society – The son of one of President Truman’s top economic advisors, Rennie Davis graduated from Oberlin College and received an M.A. at the University of Illinois. By 1968, he had risen through the ranks of the SDS, or Students for a Democratic Society, to become national director of community organizing. Based in Chicago, Davis was responsible for planning activities during convention week. After the trial, he became a disciple of Guru Maharaj Ji and a lecturer on meditation and self-awareness. Now, a successful venture capitalist, he is the founder of Ventures for Humanity.
- Tom Hayden – Students for a Democratic Society – Born in Detroit, Tom Hayden attended the University of Michigan, where he was editor of the campus newspaper. As the primary ideologue of the SDS, he wrote “The Port Huron Statement,” which became the mission statement of the anti-war, protest movement. He traveled to North Vietnam many times, often with his then-wife, actress Jane Fonda, to assess the war and America’s involvement in it. Hayden co-founded the Campaign for Economic Democracy, lobbying for solar power and environmental protection. In the mid-1970s he entered California politics, and has served in both the State Assembly and Senate. He is the author of 13 books.
- Bobby Seale – Black Panther Party – Born in Texas and the son of a carpenter, Bobby Seale worked as a mechanic, comedian, and drummer before becoming an activist. The co-founder of the Black Panther Party with Huey Newton, Seale came to Chicago as a last-minute substitute for Eldridge Cleaver and only stayed in the city for 48 hours in order to give a speech urging demonstrators to fight back if attacked by the police. To authorities, this speech constituted an “incite to riot.” During the Chicago Conspiracy Trial, he demanded the right to represent himself as his own attorney was recuperating from surgery and Judge Hoffman refused to grant a continuance. While serving a sentence for 16 counts of contempt of court, Seale wrote Seize the Time, a definitive history of the Black Panthers. He continues to work for social change from his home in Oakland, CA.
- John Froines – “Forgotten Defendant” – A graduate of UC Berkeley, John Froines became involved with the SDS while studying for a Ph.D. specializing in industrial hygiene and toxicology at Yale, where he had also been head of Students for Lyndon Johnson. After the Chicago trial, he worked for the Carter administration as OSHA’s director of toxic substances and later joined the faculty of the School of Public Health at UCLA. In addition to conspiracy, Froines’ and Lee Weiner’s alleged crime was the making of incendiary devices: a.k.a. stink bombs.
- Lee Weiner – “Forgotten Defendant” – In 1968, Lee Weiner was a teaching assistant in sociology at Northwestern University and lived in an apartment on Chicago’s South Side. He has continued to protest and he works for causes ranging from the Anti-Defamation League of the B’nai B’rith to funding for AIDS research. Along with John Froines, Weiner was later acquitted of his charges.
- William Kunstler – Defense Attorney – A New York City native, William Kunstler attended Yale University and Columbia Law School and enlisted in the U.S. Army at the outbreak of World War II, earning the rank of major. His legal practice was devoted primarily to civil liberties law and his clients included Martin Luther King, Jr., Jack Ruby, Malcolm X, Lenny Bruce, Stokely Carmichael and H. Rap Brown as well as leaders of the American Indian movement. He headed the ACLU and co-founded the Center for Constitutional Rights. He died in 1995 at the age of 76.
- Leonard Weinglass – Defense Attorney – As William Kunstler’s younger partner, Leonard Weinglass was considered the workhorse of the defense team. Since the Chicago trial he has worked on a number of political cases, including the Pentagon Papers trial and the Angela Davis case. Wineglass represented Jane Fonda in a suit against Richard Nixon, Kathy Boudin of the Weather Underground, Amy Carter for charges of seizing a building at the University of Massachusetts in protest over CIA recruitment and the Cuban Five after they were charged with infiltrating terrorist networks in Florida. A Yale Law School graduate and former U.S. Air Force captain, Weinglass continues to practice law and is based in New York.
The 1968 Chicago Democratic National Convention was groundbreaking in its media coverage of protest activity. Television news cameras had unprecedented access to the demonstrations, and the resulting footage of violence stunned viewers across the country, lending a visual impact that would not be possible with traditional print news. According to activist Jo Freeman, “TV cameras in front of the Hilton captured the confrontation. When these images were played on monitors at the convention itself—about an hour later—they disrupted the proceedings far more than the demonstrators could have had they succeeded in their efforts to march. ‘The whole world is watching’ became more than just a slogan.” The televised coverage of convention protests helped make the case against law enforcers’ excessive use of force in dealing with the demonstrators, and lent credence to the events at the 1968 DNC being equated to a “police riot.” Media coverage of Vietnam War causalities also served as a visceral reminder of the violence and helped to mobilize the anti-war cause
Political organizing tactics in the 1960s included organizing first on local levels, such as on college campuses, with the distribution of flyers and leaflets, the publishing of alternative newspapers, and word of mouth. Campus activism served as a base for many members of the peace and civil rights movement. Many groups also established community and regional-based offices or meeting places through which they could organize. Former Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) organizer Wayne Heimbach, who protested at the 1968 DNC, explained one method for getting out the message in Chicago: “A less collective response was for us at SDS to produce a leaflet entitled: ‘Wanted for Incitement to Murder, Richard J. Daley, Mayor of Chicago.’ This came after Mayor Daley’s ‘shoot to kill’ orders to his police department. We delivered this flyer all over Chicago’s West Side and it was an immediate success.” Paper publications were another effective method of mobilization. Ramparts was a leftist magazine, published monthly, that served as a voice of the anti-war movement. At the 1968 convention, the magazine published a daily two-page publication that reported on the major events and protest activities that were taking place. Volunteers and movement members helped distribute it to the public.
Protesters and Police:
At the 1968 Convention, the Chicago police arrested 589 people, including protesters, press members and passersby. Just as in New York City in 2004, police forces had anticipated violence. Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley fortified city law enforcers with thousands of U.S. Army and Illinois National Guard troops. The Convention headquarters was surrounded by barbed wire, and volunteers and tourists were removed from the nearby sidewalks. Protesters antagonized police, hurling curses as well as bricks and bottles, and protest activity included planned marches as well as more impromptu activities, such as the lowering of an American flag to the ground during a legal rally in Grant Park. The police responded with tear gas, Mace and in some cases, billy clubs. A report on the DNC, later issued by the Chicago Study Team, deemed that the protesters’ “extremely obscene language was a contributing factor to the violence.” The Chicago police came under heavy criticism for what some considered an excessive use of force, and the DNC was labeled a “police riot.” For demonstrators and police supporters alike, the 1968 Convention, much like the 2004 Convention, remained a divisive event that signified the country’s deep political ruptures.
I was initially drawn to this subject matter for both political and cinematic reasons. I wanted to make a film that would remind people about the importance of exercising one’s constitutional rights. I found my source of inspiration in the story of the Chicago Conspiracy Trial and the 1968 Democratic Convention. I have long admired the courage and resilience of both the protestors and the defendants and I wanted to make a film that celebrated their actions and allowed a new generation to witness a story about how far people will go to have their voices heard. The events in Chicago happened nearly 40 years ago, which basically suggests that most Americans under the age of 50 have never seen these images. My goal from the beginning has been to reintroduce this chapter of recent history to a new generation, for they are the ones who will hopefully benefit the most from this story.
The challenge was to make a film about the ‘60s that would appeal to a contemporary audience. Most historical non-fiction is presented as memoir or as a recollection. I like the idea of allowing the audience to experience events as they unfold. This means eschewing talking head interviews and omniscient narration. I think it is important too, when dealing with subjects like Abbie Hoffman, to reveal them as they were seen at the heights of their fame, to preserve the integrity of their youth.
I also didn’t want to make a film that read like CliffsNotes to an era. With eight defendants representing three political organizations and a political convention with three candidates, all set against one of the most complicated political landscapes in recent history, my biggest fear was overwhelming young audiences with a bunch of names and faces that they had never heard of. At the same time, I didn’t want to trivialize the era by giving passing mention to some weighty issues. I knew that this would be somewhat controversial, but once I decided to free myself from the chains of history, I felt that I could make the movie I wanted to make.
As I did my research for the film, I became increasingly inspired by the work of Abbie Hoffman and the Yippies. What I most admired was their sense of theatrics and their ability to expose injustice through humor and charm. I felt that their approach to politics and sense of imagery would resonate with people today. Although the issues that my film deals with are quite serious, I never wanted the film to become too earnest. I wanted the film to have a sense of humor and playfulness while at the same time expose the brutality and violence of the courtroom and Convention week.
When I started this project I knew that I wanted to interweave the events in the courtroom with the events a year earlier. For the longest time I couldn’t figure out how to deal with the trial as there was no footage of the proceedings. I knew that I wanted the audience to “experience” the courtroom rather than hear about it, so that ruled out talking head “eyewitness” interviews. Since I was going to be intercutting between archival material and the courtroom material I knew that the characters needed to look nearly identical, which in essence ruled out dramatic re-enactments with actors in costume. Then one day I read a quote from Jerry Rubin where he described the trial as “a cartoon show.” It was so obvious. By animating the trial I would not only avoid all of the clichés of historical non-fiction, but I would also be able to make a statement about the circus-like nature of that courtroom.
Ultimately I tried to make this story universally appealing. By shedding the layers of historical context and focusing the narrative on the characters’ battles with authority, I feel I was able to craft a story about courage and honor and the refusal to be silenced, themes that I hope will resonate with a broad audience.
The Making of CHICAGO 10
Director/Writer/Producer Brett Morgen talks about blending animation with documentary, choosing the music and working with voiceover actors in CHICAGO 10.
What led you to make this film?
On the eve of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan it seemed to me there were a number of Americans who opposed the war, but no one was taking to the streets. The time was right to look back at the Chicago 8 and the anti-war movements of the ’60s to have gain an understanding of what it means to take a stand and to encourage people to take a more active role in protest.
What do you hope audiences will get out of seeing your film?
I tried to make this story universally appealing. By shedding the layers of historical context and focusing the narrative on the characters’ battles with authority, I feel I was able to craft a story about courage and honor and the refusal to be silenced, themes I hope will resonate with a broad audience. My goal with this film, as a filmmaker, was not to tell people what was going on in 1968 but allow them to experience it themselves. This is a movie about experience. It’s what I call experiential cinema—your experience with non-fiction.
What didn’t get included in CHICAGO 10 that you would have liked to?
I would have liked to have more time to develop the render style for the film’s animated sequences. When you work in motion capture animation, the last thing that is applied is the render style—in essence, the look. I wasn’t able to see any completely rendered scenes until a few weeks before the premiere, which was two years after we started work on the film.
How did you choose the music used in the film?
Ninety-five percent of the music is contemporary—rap, reggae, genres that didn’t even exist in 1968—but they are organic to the story because the other elements in the film feel a bit more contemporized. I wanted the music to feel contemporary—the soundtrack of my audience’s lives, not their parents’.
Tell us about a scene in the film that especially moved or resonated with you.
Even though I watched some of the riot scenes hundreds of times, I never became numb to their effect. To this day, I get emotional when I see them.
The Chicago Seven Trial: In Their Own Words
“It’s going to be a combination Scopes trial, revolution in the streets, Woodstock Festival and People’s Park, all rolled into one.” — Abbie Hoffman
“It’s going to be the most important political trial in the history of the United States.” — Jay Miller, director of the Illinois Division of the American Civil Liberties Union
“This is a criminal trial, not a political trial. I intend to play it as straight as possible. They can monopolize the rhetoric. I’m interested in the jury.” — Thomas Aquinas Foran, the United States Attorney
“Gentlemen, let’s get something straight. The police aren’t in the streets to create disorder; they are in the streets to preserve disorder.” — Mayor Richard Daley
“Our strategy was to give Judge Hoffman a heart attack. We gave the court system a heart attack, which is even better.” — Jerry Rubin
“Those who incite to violence should be punished whether or not freedom of speech is impaired.” — Congressman Robert L.F. Sikes (Democrat, Florida), during debate on the “antiriot’ provisions of the 1968 Civil Rights Act.
“The Conspiracy in the streets needs: freedom, actors, peace, turf, money, sunshine, musicians, instruments, people, props, cars, air, water, costumes, sound equipment, love, guns, freaks, friends, anarchy, Huey free, a truck, airplanes, power, glory, old clothes, space, truth, Nero, paint, paint, help, rope, swimming hole, ice cream, dope, nookie, moonship, Om, lords, health, no hassles, land, pigs, time, patriots, spacesuits, a Buick, people’s justice, Eldridge, lumber, panthers, real things, good times.” — Leaflet handed out by the Conspiracy office in the week before the trial.
“Conspiracy? Hell, we couldn’t agree on lunch.” — Abbie Hoffman
“They understood that you didn’t have to attack the fortress anymore. You could just surround it, make faces at the people inside and let them have nervous breakdowns and destroy themselves.” — Norman Mailer
“Would you like your children to grow up like them?” — A Chicago Seven Trial juror
The PBS website also includes some useful documents that will help make the lessons of the film more relevant and real. I have included these PDF files here for your convenience. Click below to read and download.
The following sites may also prove helpful if you still want more information about the Chicago police riots or the trial.
AUDIO LINKS – listen to actual testimony from trial
TRAILERS – Watch the trailers from the movies
FOR MORE INFORMATION – Links to more websites
ACTIVISM IDEAS – Ways to get involved.