Brett Morgen’s tiresome re-creation of a watershed 1960s political trial shoots at fish in a barrel—and misses

Chicago 10

on January 02, 2008 by Ray Greene

It’s important to remember that the Sundance Film Festival has done an immeasurable amount of good for independent films and filmmakers and that each year is a mixed blend of wheat and chaff. That shouldn’t have to be said at the start of a first review from the first screening on the first day of a newly minted SFF. Unfortunately, 2007 festival opener Chicago 10 is such a nearly perfect repository of Sundance’s worst tendencies—its simplified and self-righteous politics, its Absolut-Vodka-corporate-sponsorship sense of “cool,” its aging baby-boomer nostalgia for the “us/them” New Left broad-brush version of the American 1960s—that it’s almost impossible to talk about this movie about a trial without putting the Sundance paradigm itself into the dock.

Thank the Gods of Independent Cinema that festival director Geoffrey Gilmore elected to write the program notes for Chicago 10 himself. It’s safe to assume Gilmore knows what he’s talking about when he calls the picture a “documentary,” and it’s good he weighed in, because Chicago 10 ’s extreme reliance on cinematic re-creation could easily lead a viewer to mistake this film for a ham-fisted TV legal drama.

Ever since Michael Moore grossed hundreds of millions of dollars by turning factual objectivity into a luxury item for the documentary film, it’s gotten harder and harder to tell the difference between fact and fabrication within the form. Writer/director/producer Brett Morgen ( The Kid Stays in the Picture ) has taken the current documentary vogue for the fast and loose to its logical conclusion in Chicago 10 by using celebrity voice talent and animation reminiscent of Richard Linklater’s recent (and vastly superior) A Scanner Darkly to reinvent the trial of the Chicago Seven—young organizers against the Vietnam War who were met with what can only be described as a police riot when they and 15,000 others protested at the Democratic Party’s presidential nominating convention in 1968.

The “Seven” were eight actually (Morgen includes a defendant whose trial was spun off preverdict and their defense attorneys to get to 10). Their subsequent trial for “incitement to riot” was a farce, and the Yippie defendants knew it, contributing to the general sense of totalitarian carnivale with such stunts as arriving in court wearing judge’s robes and police badges of their own. The case included such notorious legal outrages as the binding, gagging and chaining to a chair of African-American defendant Bobby Seale when he demanded to represent himself. Stock footage of contemporaneous convention coverage showing teargas-firing cops bludgeoning American college kids into the Chicago pavement is still harrowing to watch. Morgen’s sympathies are where any sane person’s would be—with the defendants—and his task on its surface is an easy one. Combining such incendiary materials into a convincing narrative should be as simple as shooting the proverbial fish in a barrel.

But Morgen may be the first person to ever shoot at fish in a barrel and miss. He manages this rare feat by taking the stark and uncomplicated politics of a moment in American history that was as ugly and naked as a bruised eyeball and simplifying them even further into such a stultifying spectacle of white-hatted heroes and sniggering villains that even a sympathetic viewer shuts down after awhile. Though the dialogue in the animated courtroom scenes is reputedly from trial transcriptions, the vocal performances and graphic style certainly aren’t. Hank Azaria’s version of defendant Abbie Hoffman twinkles so incessantly he might as well enter the courtroom by sliding down a chimney, while Roy Scheider voices the presiding judge as if he were Star Wars villain Emperor Palpatine caught midway between transforming into the Lord of the Sith. Defending attorney William Kuntsler has been animated to look like a hipper version of Mr. Fantastic from The Fantastic Four, but when a female cop comes in to testify against Our Heroes, she’s not only drawn as if she swallowed a slide rule, she’s voiced to sound positively infertile.

Morgen’s other wearying stunt is to score his period piece about 1960s radicalism to a combination of turgid orchestral stuff (played over the cops, naturally) and what, in a suspicious confluence of advertise-ese, both Gilmore’s program notes and Chicago 10 ’s press notes refer to as “the music of revolution, then and now.” Latter-day acts like Eminem and Rage Against the Machine are paired on Chicago 10 ’s soundtrack with such unlikely voices of the Yippie Left as Black Sabbath and Iggy and the Stooges, who at least recorded during the era under discussion.

It’s any aging baby boomer’s fantasy of perpetual relevance made flesh: Hippies are the new rappers and punks! Yeah, and Sid Vicious and Dee Dee Ramone are the new Rudolph Nuryev. The effect of watching Vietnam protestors march to a Marshall Mathers rap about the George W. Bush administration is about as emotionally convincing as one of those public service announcements created by the Ad Council to keep kids off drugs: “Now remember, sonny, revolution is COOL.” It’s enough to make you want to get your hands on a truncheon and go bust a few hippie heads.

Distributor: Roadside Attractions
Cast: Hank Azaria, Mark Ruffalo, Liev Schreiber, Nick Nolte, Jeffrey Wright and Roy Scheider
Director/Screenwriter: Brett Morgen
Producers: Bret Morgen and Graydon Carter
Genre: Documentary
Rating: R for language and brief sexual images
Running time: 103 min.
Release date: February 29, 2008 ltd.
Reviewed: 2007 Sundance Film Festival

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