Paramount // 2007 // 99 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Ben Saylor (Retired) // August 28th, 2008
The convention was drama. The trial was comedy.
As the 2008 Democratic National Convention unfolds, comparisons to its 1968 predecessor are inevitable, and, as it would seem, encouraged, at least by Paramount Home Video, which is releasing the 2007 film Chicago 10 on DVD this week. While both conventions took (and take) place against a backdrop of vastly unpopular wars, and each occurred amid lame duck presidencies (the 1968 situation being the result of President Lyndon Johnson's decision not to seek another term), the 1968 convention will be forever known for the violence that wracked it. The demonstrations/riots and subsequent conspiracy trial of several protest group leaders (among them Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, and Black Panther co-founder Bobby Seale) are the subjects of Brett Morgen's film.
Chicago 10 is a blend of archival news footage of the people and the protests as well as animated scenes of the trial of those who would later be referred to as, alternately, the "Chicago 7" and the "Chicago 8." (Morgen's inclusion of defense attorneys William Kunstler and Leonard Weinglass brings his total to 10.) Employing what resembles a cruder variation on the rotoscoping technique used much more effectively in Richard Linklater's A Scanner Darkly, Morgen uses what the film claims are actual court transcripts in order to construct the trial's narrative.
Morgen's juxtaposition of the real footage and staged animation generally works well, and clearly conveys both the disastrous nature of the demonstrations as well as the patent absurdity that was the trial. Unfortunately, like Morgen's previous film, the admittedly entertaining Robert Evans propaganda piece The Kid Stays in the Picture (co-directed by American Teen helmer Nanette Burstein), the director's focus is disappointingly narrow. Instead of exploring in greater detail not only the events that preceded the 1968 convention (the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, for example) but also its aftermath (Nixon's victory in the general election), Morgen doggedly keeps his focus primarily on Hoffman and the rest of the defendants. Footage of LBJ announcing an escalation of the draft is included, but nothing is made of his momentous decision not to seek reelection and how that affected the Democratic Party heading into the convention. Hubert Humphrey, who ultimately won the nomination over Eugene McCarthy and George McGovern, is a nonentity as far as this film is concerned. I realize that the trial itself is the more overtly iconic and "entertaining" facet of the 1968 convention, but ignoring important historical context really limits the film's impact.
Another problem with Morgen's approach lies with the film's animation, which, while admittedly a unique artistic decision, may prove distracting to some viewers (as it did for me after a while). If the bizarre-looking animated figures don't distract you, the parade of celebrity voices might; Nick Nolte (as prosecutor Tom Foran) is one of the worst offenders in this regard. Hank Azaria (Heat), similarly, is only somewhat effective as Hoffman. Better are Liev Schreiber (The Sum of All Fears) as Kuntsler and the late Roy Scheider as the crabby Judge Julius Hoffman, as well as Jeffrey Wright (Syriana) as Seale.
Paramount Home Video has done Chicago 10 a great disservice with its DVD presentation. The image quality is actually pretty strong given its use of different footage of varying quality, and the sound presentation is adequate. The "extras," however, consist of a collection of previews for titles such as Son of Rambow, Shine a Light, and The Kite Runner, as well as a short clip made by Gina/Gine Telaroli (the DVD sloppily lists one spelling on the case and another on the disc) as part of some contest held in association with the film. It's basically a trailer, which I guess is Paramount's way of making up for not including an actual trailer with the disc. Other than that, there's nothing, not even chapter selections (which, to be fair, may have been an artistic call made by Morgen). Paramount really could have helped compensate for what Morgen leaves out by including valuable, history-minded supplements. Oh well.
Overall, while I'd be lying if I said I didn't come away from Chicago 10 not only entertained but also better informed about what happened during and after the 1968 Democratic National Convention, I can't help but be disappointed in the film's lack of scope and deeper insight. The film itself is not guilty (I won't go down in Verdict history as the judge who found the Chicago 10 guilty once again), but Morgen is ordered to head to a library to read up on his history of the late 1960s, and Paramount is admonished for their brutality toward this DVD.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 99 Minutes
Release Year: 2007
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Chicago 10 Remix Video Contest Winner (Gina Telaroli)