Remember the bad old days, when the government lied its way into invading a distant country, sent young men to fight and die in an illegal war and, despite the opposition of a majority of Americans, decided to escalate the war? When our leaders used state power to spy on citizens and silence dissent?
Thank God we now live in more enlightened times.
In reality, of course, things haven’t changed much, except that the U.S. learned important lessons from the Vietnam War. By ending the draft, enlisting the press and tightly controlling access to information, it prevented mass protests of the kind that arose in the late ’60s, which were a disastrous problem for the war’s planners.
A pivotal year was 1968, the focus of Chicago 10, an unusual documentary about the protests in Chicago surrounding the 1968 Democratic National Convention, and the trial the following year of eight antiwar organizers on charges including conspiracy and inciting to riot. The defendants were Abbie Hoffman Jerry Rubin, David Dellinger, Tom Hayden, Rennie Davis, John Froines, Lee Weiner and Bobby Seale. The defendants became known as the Chicago Seven after Black Panther activist Seale’s case was severed from the others, but writer-director Brett Morgan, calls his film Chicago 10 to include defense lawyers William Kunstler and Leonard Weinglass, both of whom were convicted on contempt charges.
The film juxtaposes excellent archival footage, much of it from Haskell Wexler's Medium Cool, of the Chicago protests, in which Mayor Richard Daley’s police used tear gas, fists and nightsticks to beat protesters bloody, with an animated dramatization of the trial, one of the most notorious in recent history thanks largely to the antics of Yippie leader Hoffman, the incorrigible clown prince of protest, who blew kisses to the jury (a staid lineup Hoffman said looked like “the back pages of the Ladies Home Journal”), had his co-defendants walk into court wearing judicial robes, and suggested the judge try LSD, offering to set him up with a dealer in Florida.
The trial was a made-for-the-movies affair, helmed by the elderly Judge Julius Hoffman — no relation to Abbie, but the shared name was the source of many jokes. The irascible judge made no pretense of impartiality, repeatedly denying the defendants’ motions and ordering Seale — who spoke out bitterly when denied the right to defend himself — bound and gagged and sentenced to four years for contempt.
Using animation to dramatize this singular event is a clever idea, since the transcripts are available but film footage is not. Unfortunately, the rotoscope animation is awkward, with a distracting tendency to make us look into the cavernous interiors of characters’ mouths. And, the contrast between the news footage and the contemporary animation is jarring. The real-life Hoffman, with his fast, East Coast-inflected patter, is far more compelling than the animated Hoffman, voiced by Hank Azaria, who sounds, regrettably, like one of his Simpsons characters, Moe the Bartender.
Although it is a cliché to pair late-’60s protest rock with footage of hippie demonstrations, it’s not necessarily a better idea to score it with Rage Against the Machine and Eminem, some of the artists represented on the soundtrack. The music, which runs through large portions of the animated sequences, is loud and distracting, not to mention historically irrelevant. I don’t know, maybe Morgen thought it would make the film more accessible to younger viewers.
Even with its questionable style choices, Chicago 10 is a passionate, fully engaging retrospective of the times: the rage, the absurdist comedy, the radicals’ courage and their iconic personalities. It is, by necessity, only a capsule version of the trial, which lasted for months. In the end, the defendants were acquitted of conspiracy, though some were convicted on other charges. All of the convictions were reversed on appeal.
The ruinous war dragged on for another seven years, ending four years after Nixon announced “the end is in sight.” And Abbie Hoffman died alone in 1989 after swallowing 150 phenobarbital pills. His former co-defendant Tom Hayden, who did not attend the funeral, told the New York Times he thought Hoffman found “life in the ‘80s irrelevant…facing old age without seeing significant social change.”
Originally appeared in the Cleveland Free Times.