Those of us called the baby boomer generation take this title on with pride. In our lives we have witnessed so many changes and so much history those other generations pale in comparison. An incredible amount of social change took place in the fifties and sixties and it unfolded before our eyes. In the sixties one of the leading causes in every city throughout the country was the war in Viet Nam. Our generation was being drafted and sent off to a war that many considered not only unpopular but illegal. The year 1968 was a presidential election year and millions of the young wanted their voices heard through the established political forum. In that year the Democratic National Convention was held in Chicago. It would select the man who would take our ideas and opinions into the White House. During this convention protests against the war and the current administration filled the streets of the city. Most of the nation was already a powder keg after the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy early that year. A group of protestors originally called the Chicago 8 were to be tried for charges including inciting a riot. Later, after Black Panther Bobby Seale was to be tried separately the group became the Chicago 7. There has been numerous dramas and documentaries based on the events of this time but few are as original in concept as Brett Morgen’s ‘Chicago 10’. In blends the usual news clips with modern style animation to relate the information in a fashion that at least is something completely different. At first some viewers, especially from the generation that was there may be put off by this method of presentation. We grew up on news reels and television coverage of the events and the though of making this crucial part of American history look like some online SIM game may seem disrespectful. There is another way that you should view this means of telling what happened. It will pull in a whole new generation into a piece of history we lived through. Today’s youth are used to graphics and simulations far more then we were. This film takes modern story telling techniques and turns in on history. The events may stay the same but how the story is related has to be subject to change.
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. He felt that the charges were an excuse for putting their thoughts and opinions that opposed the administration on trial. Lead defense attorney William Kunstler tried to get the motives into the trial but objections from the state were always supported by the judge Julius Hoffman. The film does support the popular belief that the judge was biased against the unruly defendants.
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.