In September of 1969, Abbie Hoffman and fellow radical activists Jerry Rubin, David Dellinger, Tom Hayden, Rennie Davis, John Froines, and Lee Weiner were hauled into court along with Black Panther Bobby Seale on a grand jury indictment for allegedly conspiring to incite the massive anti-Vietnam war protests and resulting violent mayhem that transpired in the Chicago environs during the 1968 Democratic Convention. What resulted is arguably the most overtly political "show trial" in American history.
Using a mélange of animation, archival footage and voiceover re-creation by well-known actors, Brett Morgen expands even further on the eye-catching multimedia technique that he and co-director Nanette Burstein used in their 2002 doc The Kid Stays in the Picture.
The bulk of the animated sequences are re-enactments from the trial itself, with dialog lifted directly from courtroom transcripts (and trust me, no rewrites were required because you couldn't make this stuff up). This visual technique perfectly encapsulates the overall circus atmosphere of the trial, which was largely fueled by Hoffman and Rubin's amusing yet effective use of "guerilla theatre" to disrupt the proceedings and accentuate what they felt to be the inherent absurdity of the charges. The courtroom players are voiced by the likes of Nick Nolte (as prosecutor Thomas Foran), Jeffrey Wright (as Bobby Seale) and the late Roy Scheider (in full "fuddy-duddy" mode as Judge Hoffman).
Do not, however, mistake this film as a gimmicky and superficial "cartoon" that only focuses on the hijinx. There is plenty of evidence on hand, in the form of archival footage (fluidly incorporated by editor Stuart Levy) to remind us that these were very serious times. The footage of the Chicago police wildly bludgeoning any and all who crossed their path (demonstrator and innocent bystander alike) still has the power to shock and physically sicken the viewer. There is a protracted montage of this violence that seems to run on for at least 10 minutes; sensitive viewers may find this sequence upsetting.
I have to give kudos for the excellent soundtrack; or rather, for what songs are not on the soundtrack. For once, a film about the "turbulent 60s" does not feature "Fortunate Son" by CCR, "Get Together" by the Youngbloods or (most notably) "For What It's Worth" by Buffalo Springfield (you can always re-watch Forrest Gump if you wish to wallow in trite 60s clichés). Appropriately incendiary music by Rage Against the Machine, The Beastie Boys and Eminem balances well with less-plundered period songs from Black Sabbath ("War Pigs"), Steppenwolf ("Monster") and the MC5 ("Kick Out the Jams").
If I have any quibble with Chicago 10, it is a minor one. Although some of us are old enough (ahem) to remember the high-profile media coverage of the trial and grok the circumstances surrounding it, perhaps a little hindsight analysis or discussion of historical context would have been helpful for younger viewers. Perhaps Morgen wanted to steer clear of the usual clichés, like parading a series of talking heads with gray ponytails, sentimentalizing and waxing poetically about the halcyon days of yore. Besides, if you "remember" the 60s, you probably weren't there anyway, right?