Saturday, March 1, 2008

An Animated Documentary: Chicago 10

Chicago 10
Directed by Brett Morgen
Released February 29, 2008

1968 is quite the year in terms of historical significance. Both Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. were assassinated and “Tricky Dick” Nixon was elected President of the United States. Director Brett Morgen’s film brings to light another major scandal of 1968: the arrest and trial of eight prominent anti-war ringleaders who organized a massive protest of the 1968 Democratic National Convention.

The Chicago Ten include the eight men arrested and the two defense lawyers who advocated for their rights. The Chicago Eight, as the defendants were more commonly known, may be familiar because it was recently announced that Sacha Baron Cohen of Borat fame would be portraying Abbie Hoffman, one of the Eight, in an upcoming Steven Spielberg-Aaron Sorkin project on the same subject. That casting choice seems only appropriate after seeing archive footage of Hoffman and his fellow Yippies describing how they choose to respond to the government in a blatantly immature manner. Even their name – Yippies – is jokingly attributed to a brainstorming session where they tried to find words that rhymed with “hippies.”

Yet this story of the Chicago Eight is no laughing matter. While the Yippies prance about and make jokes, the insincerity of their trial is horrifying and immensely disturbing. The second half of the film abandons humor altogether and turns to stark seriousness. Morgen uses animation to recreate the trial, finding his inspiration for the idea from Yippie Jerry Rubin’s assertion that the trials were “cartoonish.” The concept, substituting animated dramatizations for any present-day interviews, is a novel one, but it runs the risk of caricaturing the trial, and especially the prosecution, far too wildly. The late Roy Scheider in particular seems to be overplaying Judge Julius Hoffman, but Morgen claims that Scheider was kind in his portrayal.

The film is decidedly on the side of the Yippies, but that does not mean its allegiance is not justified. While their childish methods may offend some, the sickening response to Black Panther leader Bobby Seale’s attempts to defend himself in court and videos of police officers brutally beating protesters certainly arouse sympathy, if not activism. This film recalls the fantastic 2006 documentary The U.S. vs. John Lennon, where leaving the film creates a sense of wanting to be a part of such a communal, significant protest. Morgen commented after the screening on his sense that activism today is nothing like what it used to be and that the current war situation is disturbingly similar to that with Vietnam in 1968.

What is reassuring is that Morgen’s experiment pays off. The animated segments work in concert with the archive footage of Hoffman, Rubin, and the other Yippies calling their supporters to action or responding to charges. A sense of just how much of a joke the trial was is driven home, and then some. A possible roadblock for the film would be unfavorable comparisons to the likes of Michael Moore, where the truth is embellished or even fictionalized for the sake of proving a point. To his credit, Morgen does an impressive job of staying focused, and while the lack of any actionable present-day interviews may be somewhat lamentable, the overall effect of the film is staggering and powerful. Morgen and his film cannot speak as loudly as the characters themselves can – but their actions, as captured by Morgen’s film, certainly speak loudly enough.

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