While most young people understand Bush’s elections and war on terror as phony, immoral, and criminal, we don’t see them partaking in the hands-on, face-to-face activism of social revolutions past. Chicago 10 is a reminder of a time when the counter-culture was out on the street making noise—a history lesson so removed from our present political climate it feels almost like science fiction. The historical figures featured in the film were so disgusted with fascist police tactics, they sparked major disruptions in order to get their voices heard: At the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, “Yippie” dissidents (and full-time class clowns) Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin staged concerts, sit-ins, flower-power happenings, and obnoxious beat theater to shake things up, and pacifist leader David Dellinger led nonviolent marches that rankled the police department. These brave folks endured tear gas that fell like rain and billy clubs that smacked them into bloody pulps, and when Hoffman, Rubin, Delliner, Black Panther co-chair Bobby Seale, and others were put on trial for supposedly inciting the violence, the courtroom became a Felliniesque circus of goofball antics and oppressive terror tactics, which reached an apotheosis of absurdity when Seale was bound and gagged for demanding his constitutional rights.
The archival footage used in Chicago 10 brings us back to a time when individuals weren’t afraid of speaking up for their ideals. It’s encouraging to see so many articulate public figures, even when they’re resorting to what we might expect from the cast of Jackass. Sure, it’s exciting, funny, inspiring—all good qualities for a documentary—and Chicago 10 has the guts to include characters so maverick in their ideals they don’t just question the actions of the current president and administration but the very concept of having a president and administration to begin with. Nowadays, who would even ponder such a thought other than conspiracy freaks lurking, pariah-like, on the outskirts of society? Though director Brett Morgen works overtime to remind viewers how cool these cats were (he uses modern music by Eminem and Rage Against the Machine as if terrified we’ll get bored by too much classic rock), it’s nice to see political issues get touted as something exciting and hip—not to mention relevant.
But that’s only half the movie. The other half, an animated recreation of the courtroom where Hoffman, Rubin, Seale, and the five others were put on trial (their two outspoken attorneys complete the 10 of the film’s title), is more problematic. While the voice talent is generally excellent and perfectly cast (Hank Azaria, Mark Ruffalo, Liev Schreiber, Jeffrey Wright, and Dylan Baker all bring charisma and depth to their roles), it’s occasionally distracting as well (especially Nick Nolte, whose distinctive raspy snarl as the tough prosecutor is so recognizable that it pulls you right out of the drama). But the film’s fatal flaw is its unforgivably amateurish motion-capture animation. The lawyer, judge, and defendants all look like Sims characters—clunky, inexpressive, with faces unable to register emotion. But the content is strong, and anyone who appreciates the good old-fashioned lefty cause, which seems so tragically far away from where we are now, can watch and applaud and feel good about themselves for believing in the right thing for a few minutes afterward, and give the crappy animation a free pass.