Brett Morgen’s absurdly one-sided, but still tremendously entertaining, “documentary” details the trail of ten so-called conspirators who were indicted after the massive anti-war protests at the 1968 Democratic Convention. These men, some of whom had never met prior to their being seated together in the courthouse, were ostensibly to stand trial for the federal offense of conspiring to cross state lines in order to incite a riot. Almost immediately, it becomes clear that these people weren’t on trial for their leadership roles in the demonstrations that August. Not really. As Tom Hayden, one of the accused, later wrote, “our crime was our identity.” Everything about their trial was a spectacle — from the ostentatiousness of the charges to the theatricality of the accused themselves — and the hip, late 1960s public watched closely as the accused sat through hours of abusive testimony at the hands of an aggressive prosecutor and a biased judge, awaiting the inevitable guilty verdict.
Morgen’s film traces the run-up to the protests through a fascinating use of archival footage — much of it is left to play with no commentary at all, apart from a raucous (and anachronistic) soundtrack of Rage Against the Machine and the Beastie Boys. It’s thrilling, even in its obviously manipulative political approach. Let there be no doubt that this film is about your identification with the protesters — not the police, Mayor Dailey, the government, etc. The rest of the film details the trial itself, animating the court transcripts (literally) by having actors recite the words as though reading a script, and using cartoon representations of the scenes. This is a weird, novel, and mostly effective approach. Indeed, once we get past the oddness of watching a highly edited version of the trial played by animated versions of Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman, Bobby Seale and Tom Hayden, etc, all voiced by famous Hollywood actors (Hank Azaria, Nick Nolte, Mark Ruffalo, Live Schreiber), the whole thing becomes quite charming.
Thing is, court transcripts are dead on the page. They are just words, and we have to guess at how to enliven them. How were they spoken, these words, and with what inflection? Dramatizing the court documents makes this film both dramatically interesting and historically misleading. Nick Nolte’s prosecutor is basically a phlegmatic asshole, mean and conniving and unfair — he is even drawn to look like George W. Bush, all squinty and eyes-too-close-together. And the less said about Roy Scheider’s take on Judge Hoffman as a twisted, evil, sputtering monster, the better. At times, it’s all so preposterous as to be impossible to take seriously. Morgen missed an obvious opportunity here. If he had just let these men say the hateful, arrogant, and unconstitutional things that they actually said, and not asked the actors to portray them with broadly comic-book-badguy voices, we might have had us a bit of animated verisimilitude.
In this fraught and important election season, when the American people have the choice between a fairly good option and a clearly dangerous one (sorry McCain, but your party needs to take a time out), my thoughts often turn to past events for reference. But do they help? Do they instruct me, give me ideas about where to go this time around? As a historian, I often look to the past for inspiration, for a clearer window on the world in which I live. Usually, looking to the past offers a simple (and simplistic) bit of mollification: things are better now, it’s getting better all the time.
But, today, as I watch the US government continue to attack poorer countries, pretending that war isn’t just as devastating a form of terrorism as the kind practiced by radical Islamists, I despair. Today, as I watch the US government use semantic arguments to explain away the fact that it now endorses (not just condones) the torture of prisoners of war, I am deflated. Today, as I contemplate the grand horror of global warming alongside the persistent and callous refusal of the US government to actively engage this threat, I am afraid.
Just 40 years ago, in the midst of a disastrous war on the Vietnamese, amid the horrific awareness that the US was using such civilian-murdering weapons as napalm and agent orange, the world watched as huge numbers of American citizens stood up and condemned their country’s actions. They loudly questioned the direction their country had taken. They marched in the street. They got their heads beaten by cops with batons. They choked on tear gas. They sang earnest, naïve, and insipid folk songs with passionate intensity. They didn’t give up, at least not yet. Even when they were broken, physically and mentally.
Where is our Chicago Ten? Where are our “conspirators”? Is Obama really supposed to fix everything? Can we really pretend that things are still getting better all the time?