Feb 21, 2008

On Chicago 10

Hot on the heels on last month’s Sundance opener In Bruges reaching theaters a few weeks after its Park City bow, last year’s Sundance opening tip, Brett Morgen’s Chicago 10, finally arrives at theaters next week via micro-indie distrib Roadside Attractions. Providing yet another opportunity to parse the myths, facts and still mystifying fall out of the 1960s and in particular the protests of the Democratic Convention in 1968 and the trial of its organizers (Abbie Hoffman, Rennie Davis, Tom Hayden, Jerry Rubin, David Dellinger, John Froines, Lee Wener), the black panther leader who just happened to speak in Chicago that day (Bobby Seale) and the lawyers who stood in contempt of a contemptuous court to defend them (William Kunstler, Leonard Weinglass).

Their trial was a kangaroo court, one that was a clear instrument of the Nixon administrations fear of the power of the anti-war movement. Ultimately all ten men several jail time of some sort and the anti-war movement was squashed, the war lasting halfway through the new decade and claiming tens of thousands more American lives and hundreds of thousands more Vietnamese.

Yet Morgen’s picture has its eyes on the ground, not on the big picture. He wants to immerse you in the experience of four days in Chicago when the forces of the American counter culture came violently into conflict with the Repressive State Apparatus known as the Chicago police Department and soon protesting whites we’re getting gassed and beaten in the way protesting blacks had been hosed and beaten throughout the south, but the sympathetic news media would not be on their side this time.

Morgan’s picture is half archival footage, half animated pseudo-doc; many of his aesthetic conceits are fresh, inventive and certainly worth a try, but while watching the film I was overcome with a sense that the movie really had nothing new to say, no new insight or perspective in which the view the 60s with. Animating these iconic men and embodying them with the voices of famous actors is the experiment the entire film hinges on and it comes off a bit awkwardly. Although the entire cast (Mark Ruffalo, Hank Azaria, Dylan Baker, Nick Nolte, Live Schreiber and the late Roy Scheider) is terrific, one senses, as the Beastie Boys and Rage Against the Machine blare on the soundtrack, a calculated attempt being made by the filmmakers to make these forty year old events seem like the stuff of disposable Saturday afternoons for the teen demographic.

This is necessarily a bad thing, as too few people of my generation or the one following mine know of these events and there pivotal role in American history. Yet, as the film progresses, offering us the barest outlines of or perspective on the events in American history proceeding the organization of the protests, it haphazardly attempts to both provoke boomer nostalgia and contemporary apprehension while harkening to heroes from nineties pop music and motion capture animation in order to attract youth audiences that the filmmakers assume would never be drawn to material of historical or social importance. In the process it shirks off the responsibility to deliver something more comprehensive, ideologically cohesive and clearly relevant to the here and now that Morgen seems so at pains to address. Not for lack of curiosity, Morgen’s inability to connect our politically fraught times to the past leaves the whole project with a sense of overwrought miscalculation.