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Chicago 10

Kids do love their cartoons. And given that “kid” these days encompasses the majority of that all-important 18-to-24-year-old demographic, it makes sense to offer animation in a story that you suspect young people wouldn’t otherwise bother with.

That would seem to be the idea behind Chicago 10, a lively semi-documentary about the trial of the seven men accused by the government of disrupting the Democratic National Convention in 1968. (The title comes from the addition of co-defendant Bobby Seale and defense attorneys William Kunstler and Leonard Weinglass, who also received jail sentences.)

Watch the trailer for "Chicago 10"

You already either know this story or you don’t. If you do, you may react to it with a sense of nostalgia over what the 1960s generation accomplished (though the US didn’t pull out of Viet Nam until five years after the Chicago protests). Or you may be irritated: Writer-director Brett Morgen, who was born in 1968, gives so little context of the era as to leave historians sputtering in dismay.

Opening with a statement by President Lyndon Johnson that the draft is going to be doubled in order to maintain troop needs, Chicago 10 proceeds in two arenas. Archival footage presents the build up to the convention, which the self-dubbed “Yippies” plan to disrupt with a massive demonstration. The trial itself, which took place in the late fall of 1969, is recreated from court records (no cameras were allowed in the courtroom) with the “motion capture” animation style that was used in films like A Scanner Darkly.

Chicago 10

The trial was a farce on both sides. Defendants Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin (voiced by Hank Azaria and Mark Ruffalo) viewed the proceedings as theater (asked about how the trial is going, he quips, “I got a great seat”). But at their most antic they seem less ridiculous than Judge Julius Hoffman (no relation), who so clearly favored the government that it had to be clear to any observer that any guilty verdict would fall on appeal. The judge is voiced by the late Roy Scheider, in what is ironically one of his best performances in years. Nick Nolte works up a fine froth as prosecutor Thomas Foran.

The trial’s most infamously indelible image, though, is that of Black Panther leader Bobby Seale, joined to the case on the thinnest of justifications. After refusing to be silenced by Judge Hoffman when demanding the right to represent himself, he is shackled to his chair and gagged—an image of such symbolic power that even Foran blanches at it.

As entertaining as the animated sequences are, Chicago 10 derives its real power from the news footage of the protests, and the Chicago police department’s notoriously unrestrained brutality in breaking them up. Forty years after the fact, this is still shocking stuff—all the more so because it was actually seen around the world on televised news reports.

Morgen is clearly pitching his film not to anyone who remembers these events but the generation after him who may have no knowledge of them at all. (The inevitable song score contains almost no tunes of the time, using instead the likes of the Beastie Boys, Eminem, and Rage Against the Machine.) My guess is that he stripped so much of the context of the era so as not to overtax viewers for whom this is all new, though at the same time he risks oversimplifying the era. Can young people be counted on to go out and research these events more for themselves? I don’t know, but I hope they do so before Steven Spielberg’s version of this story (I kid you not) comes out in a year or so.

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