Chicago 10 (Roadside Attractions, R)

filmchicago10sm.jpgDon’t expect a traditional documentary: Morgan is more interested in recreating the confusing experience of living through those times than in evaluating them in a perspective informed by 40 years of hindsight.

 

 

 

 

 

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Brett Morgan’s new film, Chicago 10, presents an interesting take on the riots at the Democratic National Convention in August 1968, and the trial of the “Chicago 8” defendants who were accused of inciting the riots. Don’t expect a traditional documentary, however: Morgan is more interested in recreating the confusing experience of living through those times than in evaluating them in a perspective informed by 40 years of hindsight.

Chicago 10 is skillfully constructed from archival footage and motion-capture animations, and jumps back and forth between the riots and the trial, with dates and locations helpfully provided by title cards. Information is deliberately presented in partial and fragmentary fashion and, in a manner reminiscent of today’s political coverage, opinions are stated in sound bites that tend to polarize opinions rather than promote the exchange of ideas. So the police are either “pigs” in the service of a police state or the last bastion of law and order, and the defendants are either martyrs to the causes of freedom and justice or outside agitators threatening the American way of life.

The title Chicago 10 refers to the fact that defense attorneys William Kunstler and Leonard Weinglass were found guilty of contempt of court, along with all members of the Chicago 8: Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, David Dellinger, Tom Hayden, Rennie Davis, John Froines, Lee Weiner and Bobby Seale. Let the record show, however, that all convictions were reversed in 1972 on the grounds of judicial bias.

Morgan makes only fleeting attempts to place the riots and trial in context with reference to contemporary events, including President Johnson’s escalation of the Vietnam War and the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. He exerts even less effort in exploring the complex social changes taking place in America in the late 1960s and the Chicago 8’s connections to those changes. In fact, were this film your only source of information, you would conclude that the defendants had no serious political or social goals and were motivated primarily by an inflated sense of their own importance, an inordinate need for attention and a singular lack of appreciation of the consequences of their actions. Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, who get the lion’s share of the film’s screen time, are most pointedly presented as charismatic media manipulators who prefer to indulge their skill in provocation rather than work in any organized manner for reform.

Members of the establishment come off no better: presiding judge Julius Hoffman is portrayed as a petulant tyrant who can’t be bothered to pronounce the defendant’s names correctly; Chicago mayor Richard Daley appears as a pig-faced fascist concerned only with asserting his authority; and members of the police department seem to be no more than Daley’s minions. All of this may lead the viewer to declare “A plague on both your houses!” and simply move on.

That would be a shame. Whatever your memories of or opinions on the events in question, Chicago 10 is a fascinating film that is more interested in raising questions than answering them. Even people not yet born in 1968 may find that the film gives them a feel for that vital time in history and piques their interest to learn more. | Sarah Boslaugh

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