Funny, scary, and intense, Brett Morgen's documentary Chicago 10 chronicles the riots that overwhelmed Chicago during the 1968 Democratic National Convention, along with their ominous preludes and astonishing repercussions.
"I just didn't want to see another fuckin' '60s film with the same treatment—the same sort of nostalgia and romantic view," the 39-year-old Morgen tells me from his office in Rockaway Beach, New York. "What I was ultimately trying to do was tell a story that was kind of timeless. Because it is. The trail of the Chicago Seven is almost Shakespearean in nature. This is an epic story: There's a war going on, there's an opposition to the war, there's a government trying to silence the opposition."
Long story short: In '68, the newly formed Yippies, under the leadership of Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, introduced a far more radical and theatrical take on political action than the hippies ever possessed. But the Yippies were merely one element in what now seems to have been a perfect storm—American casualties in Vietnam were rising; the My Lai massacre eroded even the most stalwart support of the war; Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated; Nixon clinched the Republican presidential nomination. A breaking point was inevitable. Welcome to Chicago: Yippies, en masse, defied Mayor Richard J. Daley's orders, camping out in a public park and aiming to cause havoc at the Democratic convention. Daley fought back. Shit hit the fan.
"There were a lot of quote-unquote 'watershed moments' in the 1960s, but the events outside the convention in 1968 and the ensuing trial of the Chicago Seven was really one of the great spectacles of that era," Morgen says. "And I wanted to bring it to life in an equally dynamic and theatrical way." How he's done that is part of what makes Chicago 10 so revelatory. The film combines archival footage from the riots with animated sequences based on the transcripts of the chaotic trial that followed, in which key participants were prosecuted for their actions. (The voice cast for the film's animated sequences includes Hank Azaria, Mark Ruffalo, Jeffrey Wright, Nick Nolte, and Roy Scheider.)
Initially, it's a weird juxtaposition: The vibrant, shaky archival footage sharply contrasts with the stylized recreation of the circus-like trial. But together, the two halves make an exhilarating, engrossing experience. "To me, it's the antithesis of a talking-head film, which are really all about context and memory and reflection," Morgen says, "as opposed to allowing an audience to experience something in a more immediate, visceral way."
Another way the gleefully subjective Chicago 10 sets itself apart is its soundtrack. A simmering mess of angry, anachronistic rock and hiphop, it assigns protest song duties to Black Sabbath and Eminem instead of Phil Ochs. The result is weirdly authentic. "When the protest music of the 1960s is used to sell Volkswagens, it no longer has the same angst that it had, or the same sort of passion," Morgen says. "I think that after Chicago, pop music became a lot darker. [In 1968], I didn't feel there was music that would capture the energy of the moment the way that, let's say, the Beastie Boys or Rage Against the Machine did."
At one point, the effortlessly charismatic Hoffman brags to his followers: "Our role in the court is to destroy its authority, and the next generation will come along and destroy its power." His statement sums up the enormous optimism of the moment, but also reminds today's audience of how little has changed. Indeed, Chicago 10 milks much of its power from the inevitable clash of two familiar ideologies. Representing one side, Chicago's finest stand ready to defend the status quo, suited up with helmets, rifles, tear gas, and tanks; representing another, stubborn protesters practice self-defense techniques while their pal Allen Ginsberg goofily chants. Regardless of which side they're on, you can see it in all of their eyes: The breaking point is approaching. Forty years later, it's impossible not to ask what changed during those few frightening, brutal days in Chicago. Maybe everything. Maybe nothing.