Chicago 10 Offers A Crystalline Reminder That Revolution For The Hell Of It Wasn't A Revolution At All
Why were there protests outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago? "To end the Vietnam War" is the reflexive answer, a conviction solidified by newsreel footage of helmeted thugs billy-clubbing hippies for what looks like no good reason. The follow-up query--"Why did a peaceful protest turn into a riot?"--inspires more knee-jerk answers: Because the Chicago police are racist, fascist monsters. Because folk heroes Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, and Bobby Seale were the most dangerous men in America. Because the sick and conformist Establishment needed to stop the fomenting youth revolution by any means necessary. When compared with the onus of proof placed on other documentaries about shameful moments in U.S. history--consider Waco: The Rules of Engagement or Taxi to the Dark Side--Chicago 10's task looks like a cakewalk at first blush: prove what pop culture already believes. But the movie's devotion to truth fumbles its intentions. Instead of commemorating the righteous moment the motherfuckers finally turned tables on the Man, the unblinking camera instead reveals how the embarrassing, callow, and self-inflated emperors of the Yippie rebellion had no clothes.
The idea sounds great on paper--use machinima-style re-enactment technology (and the seamless vocal talent of aural chameleons such as Hank Azaria) to bring the previously unfilmed antics of the Chicago Seven trial to life, in a way that's more visceral than transcripts and courtroom sketches provide. Authentic newsreel footage roots the action in its era, while the trial provides a rough chronology of the events leading up to the fateful confrontation the whole world was watching.
But what were those events? Not an anti-war protest, the movie makes clear--Hoffman et al. wanted to hold a "festival of life" in contrast to the Democratic convention and its attendant war machine, but his plans were more about thumbing his nose than organizing dissent. When Hoffman declares to Chicago's parks and recreation committee that among the festival's activities are public fornication and a ritual "ass washing at dawn," there's something unpleasantly smug about the way he's daring anyone to show their underbelly by taking him seriously. Any understanding of the Yippies as crazy-like-a-fox playful revolutionaries won't come from how they're depicted here as a patchouli-scented variation on that other American archetype, the cretinous frat boy who likes titties and a good buzz as much as the next Skull and Bones. When the parks department predictably turns down the Yippies' request, they storm the grounds anyway to the self-important strains of the Beastie Boys' "Sabotage." Director Brett Morgen (The Kid Stays in the Picture) eschews the usual '60s doc score of period rock in favor of a mix of modern dissent bands such as Rage Against the Machine, a decision that in practice is not as radical as it sounds. If only he'd been honest about the simplicity of his subject's intentions and scored the entire movie to another tune from the Beastie Boys' pre-enlightened back catalog: "(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (to Party)."
The only person who comes out ahead in this re-enactment experiment is Bobby Seale. Indicted on the flimsiest of connections to the riots, denied his Sixth Amendment right to represent himself, and, after one outburst too many, bound and gagged at the judge's discretion, Seale is the only character whose maltreatment outrages even the most hardened viewer. His shocked co-defendants, momentarily chastened by the hard reality that their romp in the playground of white middle-class privilege doesn't extend to their black compatriot, finally shut up for once while the audience sarcastically congratulates them for finally realizing what the previous 70 minutes have made abundantly clear.
Is this the way it really went down in the streets of Chicago? Those who were there will have their own ideas, but a documentary should stand on its own regardless of the audience's own narrative about the events in question. The 2002 documentary The Weather Underground did this brilliantly, illuminating the frustration, idealism, and, yes, sometimes misguided heroism of a small pocket of American radicalism--even for viewers born well after the events in question took place. Chicago 10 has big ambitions, but a movie about the heroism of the Chicago Seven isn't succeeding if midway through you're hoping Pete Townshend will show up just so he can club Abbie Hoffman with his guitar.