“Chicago 10,” Brett Morgen’s doc about the eight anti-war protesters put on trial after the explosive 1968 Democratic National Convention, was the opening night film at Sundance last year, and finally makes it to theaters today. The doc is noteworthy for its mixing of archival footage with reenacted courtroom segments depicted in motion capture animation (Ã la Robert Zemeckis’ “The Polar Express”) with actors like Hank Azaria and Liev Schreiber reading the words of Abbie Hoffman and William Kunstler.
It works for Andrew O’Hehir, who, in a Sundance-dated review at Salon, lauds the way Morgen goes about “ignoring or breaking all the rules of documentary film, and by smashing the historical vitrine that has long contained these events and dragging them out into the light.” “In its best moments, and they are considerable,” he adds, “‘Chicago 10’ makes you see 1968, that near-apocalyptic year, with fresh eyes, as an extraordinary turning point in history now at least partly set free from boomer nostalgia and regret.” But most who like the film find some trouble with the animated sections. Tasha Robinson at the Onion AV Club dislikes that “Morgen can’t resist using the animation to add a surreal flair: Allen Ginsberg floats everywhere he goes, in full meditative position, and when Hoffman throws a kiss to the jury, the “camera” follows it, Roger Rabbit style… Chicago 10 is a lot of fun, but it could stand to take its subjects a little more seriously, if only because they themselves are so frequently goofy that mocking them is complete overkill.” For EW‘s Owen Gleiberman, the vocals are the issue: “Every line is spoken with a stagy rim-shot vitality, as if Morgen had to keep reminding us that the trial wasn’t just a trial — it was theater, man! What you miss is how the defendants, in that dull bureaucratic courtroom, became bound, in spirit, to the world they were attacking.” The animation “looks rather cruder than your average PS3 game,” notes Glenn Kenny at Premiere. “But never mind. The material is incredibly compelling.”
Andrew Sarris at the New York Observer notes that he turned a comfy 40 in 1968 and remembers the year all too well. And, in fact, most of the review is about that, until he eventually allows that “Still, it wouldn’t hurt anyone, young or old, to catch up on the fascinating history lesson.”
J. Hoberman at the Village Voice notes the film is a “deliberately ahistorical treatment,” and finds it doesn’t quite grasp its era: “However authentically chaotic, Chicago 10 is insufficiently frenzied.” And A.O, Scott at the New York Times is less charmed: “The problem is that ‘Chicago 10’ seems wholly unwilling to examine the limits of its view of history, or indeed to engage any sense of history beyond the superficialities of rhetoric and image… If you really want to know what the ’60s were about, you’ll do better to look elsewhere.”
[Photo: Brett Morgen’s “Chicago 10,” Roadside Attractions, 2007]