Nixonian Tumult Remembered in Chicago 10

The circus of the '60s, from the streets to the courtroom

In his history of the trial, John Schultz noted that "the struggle for the laugh and to suppress the laugh [were its] principle forms of aggression and unification." But Abbie's pranks were dwarfed by Julius's judicial outrages, culminating in his denying Seale the right to represent himself and then, rattled by Seale's protests, ordering him gagged and shackled. This image of a black man in bondage was agitprop beyond even the Yippie imagination. Although it occurred relatively early in the proceedings, Morgen understandably holds it back for the climax—intercut with the madness of the convention's final day, police running amok as hell breaks loose in downtown Chicago.

However authentically chaotic, Chicago 10 is insufficiently frenzied. For all its shock value, the trial was not the only game in town. During those months, a half-million anti-war demonstrators marched on Washington and were tear-gassed on the Mall, Seymour Hersh broke My Lai, the Rolling Stones played Altamont, and Leonard Bernstein threw a party for the Panther 24 (inspiring Tom Wolfe's term "radical chic"). America was introduced to new personalities: the Weathermen, Lieutenant William Calley, Charlie Manson, and (as embodied by George C. Scott) George Patton. From the perspective of the Conspiracy Trial, the most dramatic event occurred a few days before the defense began its case: Chicago police stormed the apartment of the charismatic local Black Panther leader Fred Hampton and shot him dead in his bed. Could the threat have been more obvious?

Abbie Hoffman and Bobby Seale on trial
Roadside Attractions
Abbie Hoffman and Bobby Seale on trial


Chicago 10
Written and directed by Brett Morgen
Roadside Attractions
Opens February 29

It was too much to take in then and is all but incomprehensible now. According to the trades, Morgen's deliberately ahistorical treatment is a dry run for Steven Spielberg's planned Trial of the Chicago 7—to be scripted by Aaron Sorkin, with Sacha Baron Cohen and possibly Will Smith as Abbie and Bobby. Schindler's List gave the Holocaust a happy ending, and Saving Private Ryan reduced World War II to a single mission, so why not recast the inexplicable convulsions of the late '60s in terms of personality? From bloody tragedy to savage farce to starstruck myth.

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