Directed by Brett Morgen. Featuring: Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, and the voices of Hank Azaria, Dylan Baker, Nick Nolte, Mark Ruffalo, Roy Scheider, Liev Schreiber and Jeffrey Wright. 110 min. Rated R.
As some of you may remember — and those too young may have heard — there was some stuff that happened in the 1960s (which, for the sake of this of this article, encompass a bit of the ’70s). In fact, a lot of stuff: the Kennedy assassination; the Beatles; the Vietnam War; the increasing public disgust with that war; upfront gay pride; a new wave of feminism; the rise of a more militant response to black oppression; the realization that many pleasurable substances were illegal for totally bogus reasons; and the counterculture that arose from it all. (My apologies if I’ve omitted your fave, but the list would be endless.)
I wouldn’t want to pin down any one event as the nexus of all this, but the trial of the Chicago 8 (or 7 or 10) — the subject of Chicago 10, a new documentary from Brett Morgen (The Kid Stays in the Picture) — is certainly a contender. (To explain the numerical confusion: There were initially eight defendants; one case was severed from the others, leaving seven; and eventually the vengeful judge gave all eight, plus two of the lawyers, unprecedented sentences for contempt of court.)
In brief, there had been anti-war demonstrations during the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. The cops really overreacted — even a later government inquiry characterized the resultant melee as “a police riot.” Nonetheless, a grand jury indicted some of the organizers for conspiracy, together with some fairly minor cohorts and — not wanting to leave out the brothers — one Black Panther leader, Bobby Seale, who had given a speech at one of the demos but didn’t even know the others.
Adding Seale to the mix of traditional peace activists (Dave Dellinger), more militant SDS types (Tom Hayden), and counterculture agitators (Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin) cemented the notion that this was a showdown between Us and Them — the government/ establishment and the disenchanted/disenfranchised (respectively or not, depending on which side you’re on). Basically, the grand jury had provided a structural outline for the drama to come, with judge, defendants and lawyers acting a sort of improv group filling in the details.
Much of the casting was better than could have been hoped for. Abbie and Jerry were consciously comedic figures already, Abbie brilliantly so. Judge Julius Hoffman was a hypocritical, seemingly forgetful fuddyduddy right out of a Preston Sturges film (but scary). And Seale was the righteously defiant reminder of America’s slave past, who, a century after emancipation, was clearly being dealt with by harsher standards than the others. (Ironically, Seale was the only one of the group who had actually been a professional comic, but his situation didn’t provide a lot of opportunities for humor; it’s hard to articulate a punch line when the judge has you gagged and chained to a chair.)
The result was amazing theater. Some of the excerpts in Tales of Hoffman, a book of selections from the trial transcripts published a few months after the verdict, read like Marx Brothers scenes or Clevinger’s court-martial in Catch-22. You couldn’t make this shit up. (Well, Joseph Heller could, but he was a genius.)
Morgen crosscuts between newsreels of the 1968 demonstrations and scenes from the trial. But, since this was in the days before cameras were allowed in the courtroom, he has employed animation for the trial material. (Hank Azaria does a stellar job voicing both Allen Ginsberg and Abbie, capturing the latter’s accent more convincingly than Vincent D’Onofrio in the 2000 biopic Steal This Movie.)
For the most part, Morgen plays it serious. We get some very funny stuff from Abbie: The guy really was a star. The film covers the history of the central events as well as could be hoped in an hour and 40 minutes and conveys some of the feel of the time. I think it all comes across clearly, but, then, it is hard for me to judge, since I remember a lot of this stuff from when it was happening. (Let’s make it clear once and for all: Contrary to the saying, one can remember at least some of the ’60s and still have been there.)
Chicago 10 screens March 21-27 at the Ojai Playhouse (145 E. Ojai Ave., 646-1011) at 7:30 p.m. daily, with 2 p.m. matinees on Saturday and Sunday.