The Democratic insurgent is the most charismatic candidate since RFK, and the party’s convention could be the most convulsive since the debacle in Chicago. The Vietnam War has returned in the personae of Johns McCain and Rambo. George Romero, whose Night of the Living Dead remains the definitive celluloid expression of ’68, is back with Diary of the Dead—the end of the world on MySpace and YouTube. And here to mark the 40th anniversary of the tumult that brought Richard Nixon to power: Brett Morgen’s Chicago 10.
Thirteen months after Hubert Humphrey was nominated for president in a hall ringed with barbed wire and surrounded by National Guardsmen, amid four days of violent clashes between Chicago police and anti-war protesters, the government charged eight political activists—Dave Dellinger, Rennie Davis, John Froines, Tom Hayden, Abbie Hoffman, Bobby Seale, Jerry Rubin, and Lee Weiner—with crossing state lines as part of a conspiracy to incite riot. Their carnivalesque trial, which ran from late September 1969 into February 1970, resulted in five convictions (later overturned) and citations of contempt that included defense lawyers William Kunstler and Leonard Weinglass—hence Morgen’s “10.”
Arguably the greatest media spectacle of the High ’60s, the convention telecast included ample street violence—
demonstrators chanting “The whole world is watching” as helmeted cops bashed their brains. Scarcely a year later, the event was replayed in Haskell Wexler’s innovative docudrama Medium Cool and Norman Mailer’s Miami and the Siege of Chicago—not to mention the most elaborate of these re-creations, the Chicago Conspiracy Trial, produced by Nixon himself (though Chicago 10 barely mentions him). The trial ran for nearly five months and enjoyed an immediate afterlife: The Tales of Hoffman, a 300-page sampling of the trial record, was published as a mass-market quickie a month after the proceedings ended.
If the convention was a tragedy, the trial was a farce. Revisiting events at once overly familiar and impossible to imagine, Morgen’s impure mix of documentary footage and rotoscopic computer animation is unrelenting Sturm und Drang. Chicago 10 has a deliberate and irritating absence of context but a full appreciation of antics—as when the Yippie defendants Hoffman and Rubin appeared in judicial drag, and, forced to disrobe, Hoffman revealed a Chicago police uniform underneath. These shenanigans were equaled only by those of his 74-year-old namesake, Judge Julius J. Hoffman, who sustained prosecution objections and overruled those of the defense at a ratio of perhaps 100 to 1. Taunted throughout, most powerfully by Black Panther co-founder Seale, the judge rarely failed to take the bait. (What goes around . . . : Nine years earlier, Hoffman had ruled in favor of the literary magazine Big Table, charged with obscenity for publishing excerpts from Naked Lunch.)
Moving back and forth between the riots and the trial, the movie delivers ample tumult with no more historical perspective than if produced in 1970. In a sense, it’s the belated realization of the trippy guerrilla flick that Hollywood exile Nicholas Ray tried to make at the time—a mélange of 16mm, Super-8, and documentary footage mixed with a studio re-creation of the trial where the Conspiracy, as they were called rock-band-style, played themselves.
Morgen cuts back and forth and sometimes splits the screen between police riot and political trial—the courtroom is introduced with a fanfare blast of heavy metal. Most of the music is post-’60s, if sometimes covers of period classics—another strategy to make the action more “timeless.” All of the trial is animated—albeit less expressively than in Richard Linklater’s A Scanner Darkly—and much of the documentary material has been reworked. (The hapless Abbie Hoffman biopic, Steal This Movie, was a similar mishmash, but Chicago 10 has great immediacy.) Some news footage is filmed off the television screen. Among other tidbits, Morgen, who was born the year Chicago exploded, has unearthed a local TV report on neighborhood kids playing “cops and protesters.” So much media attention was focused on the convention that even the rawest vérité footage has a powerful theatricality. The police dramatically perform their job; news reporters and demonstrators are both acutely aware of their imagined world-historical role.
For the Conspiracy, the trial was not just a show trial but the greatest show on earth—a real-life movie that would galvanize the youth of America, if not the galaxy. One of Ray’s assistants recalled that Hayden, Hoffman, and Rubin “saw themselves as potential James Deans.” Morgen concurs. His previous documentary, The Kid Stays in the Picture, fawningly celebrated producer Robert Evans, and Chicago 10 is no less glamorizing: There’s more than a bit of A Hard Day’s Night and Don’t Look Back in its presentation of the most garrulous, Abbie (Hank Azaria), and his sidekick, Jerry (Mark Ruffalo).
Abbie, who also does stand-up shtick, is the movie’s stellar wise guy, as Seale (Jeffrey Wright) is its heroic victim—but, now as then, the most fascinating performance is that of the fussy, name-mangling, imperious little judge. Introducing The Tales of Hoffman, Dwight MacDonald characterized Julius Hoffman’s courtroom manner as “arrogant without dignity, wisecracking without wit, a combination of Torquemada and a Borscht-circuit tummeler.” Ray hoped to cast Groucho Marx in the part; here, the late Roy Scheider captures Hoffman’s mix of querulous confusion and bizarre equanimity.
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?
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.