It was 40 years ago that the Democratic National Convention in Chicago became the site of riots, demonstrations, and protests, almost none of it related to the candidates or the presidency. It makes the current battle for the Democratic nomination look far less interesting in comparison.
Eight men were arrested and eventually prosecuted for inciting the riots; one of them, Jerry Rubin, said you had to count their two lawyers among the persecuted, too — hence the total arrived at in “Chicago 10,” a refreshing and innovative semi-documentary from Brett Morgen (whose last doc, “The Kid Stays in the Picture,” about venerable movie producer Robert Evans, was just as entertaining and illuminating).
Morgen uses real footage to tell the story of the convention, the riots, and the events preceding them. Intercut with this material are re-creations of the trial a year later, with the script based on the actual court transcripts and the action provided by … animation. Yes, rather than find actors who look and sound like the participants, Morgen simply got famous voices (Nick Nolte, Mark Ruffalo, Roy Scheider, Hank Azaria, Dylan Baker, and more) to do the heavy lifting and hired artists to simulate the court proceedings in a realistic, non-cartoony way.
The result is a heady history lesson (or a trip down memory lane, if you’re old enough), the glitz of the animated-but-still-highly-accurate re-creations complementing the more documentary-ish archival footage. The trial offers a bounty of almost Kafka-esque absurdity, the kind of stuff you could never make up because no one would believe it. The doddering judge, Julius Hoffman (no relation to defendant Abbie Hoffman), well into his 70s at the time of the trial and voiced here by Roy Scheider, plainly views the defendants with contempt while granting favors to the prosecution. And despite the trial’s hugely important legal ramifications, the judge seems most concerned about the use of profanity in his courtroom.
Mind you, the defendants aren’t exactly squeaky-clean pillars of society, either, and their antics before and during the trial do them no favors. Still, it’s the overzealous police whose actions ultimately caused the riots. When Morgen shows a female cop testifying that she never saw a police officer beat up a demonstrator, he can do what the real trial couldn’t: cut to actual footage of police officers beating up demonstrators, one clip after another, a parade of them refuting the cop’s implication, if not making her an outright liar. (Maybe it’s true that she, personally, never saw it happen….)
If there are great lessons or messages to be gleaned from it all, Morgen doesn’t seem too interested in driving them home. This isn’t a polemic. Though there’s no question whose side Morgen is on, his purpose is simply to tell the story, and to do it in an electric and entertaining fashion. He’s an invigorating filmmaker, not content to go the well-traveled route when there’s a new path to try. “Chicago 10” benefits from that sense of adventure.
B+ (1 hr., 50 min.; )