Independent Lens: Chicago 10

The first person on screen is Lyndon Johnson. Sober and old-TV gray, leaning toward the camera, he rocks slightly as he announces the decision to raise the number of U.S. troops in Vietnam from 75,000 to 125,000. This means, he adds, the monthly draft call will soon expand from 17,000 to 35,000. The war’s escalation in 1968 sparks widening protests and organized efforts to stop it, including demonstrations at the Democratic Convention, and, as captured in Brett Morgen’s excellent documentary Chicago 10, calls to action on multiple fronts.

Opening the Fall 2008 season of Independent Lens, the film itself revises old ideas — about what constitutes history and documentary. The title adds a couple of defendants to the case before Judge Hoffman, including Bobby Seale, gagged in the courtroom but here granted great, effective visibility. The film presents history in a manner at once subjective and energizing: animated figures, voiced by actors, act out the transcript from the trial, making available a history initially enacted behind closed doors. History is here revealed as limited and shifting, a story told and retold. As the defendants paid for their defenses via speaking engagements throughout the trial, jetting to college campuses and back to Chicago overnight, they were well aware of the benefits of performance, appreciating if not exactly enjoying the surreality of their situation.

Aside from the outrageous statistics of the war — numbers killed, numbers of troops — Chicago 10 provides little historical context for 1968 (there is no mention, say, of Bobby Kennedy’s assassination of Hubert Humphrey’s existence). Rather than taking the pronouncements of either Judge Hoffman (voiced by Roy Scheider) or Seale (Jeffrey Wright) as truth, the film questions the process by which truth is determined. Even as it uses archival footage and images, the film shows how these cannot possibly tell whole stories accurately. When the demonstrators in Chicago ’68 shouted “The whole world is watching” for TV cameras, they named the moment “public,” a collective memory in the making. The declaration was also a warning to the cops battering protestors’ heads that their bad behavior was becoming history.

The movie includes scenes of the “planning” for this spectacle, as members of the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam (MOBE) propose to “put forth the kinds of values to create a society in which a Vietnam war wouldn’t even be possible.” As the camera reveals an apartment full of stock emblems of ’60s counterculture — reefer, sex, a framed portrait of Che — the incipient media stars decide they need a name for their performance troupe. “What rhymes with hippie?” they wonder, as “Yippie!” appears in bubbly animated brilliance over Paul Krassner’s (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) head.

Even as MOBE leader Rennie Davis (James Urbaniak) asserts their desire to show the world “there are thousands of young people in this country who do not want to see a rigged convention rubber-stamp another four years of Lyndon Johnson’s war,” the Yippies prepare for a “Festival of Life,” featuring music, performance, and what Hoffman called a “fuck-in.” He describes it for a TV interview: “I mean, it’s all conceived as a total theater with everyone becoming an actor.” As their application for a license to assemble in Chicago is put off by Mayor Daley’s nervous staffers, the city adds 7,500 Army troops and 6,000 National Guardsmen to the 12,000 police officers who were put on 12-hour shifts. As Walter Cronkite puts it, “The Democratic Convention is about to begin, in a police state, there just doesn’t seem to be any other way to say it.” The protestors anticipate a showy showdown, and get it.

The trial is another sort of show. Defendant Abbie Hoffman (Hank Azaria) denies the charges against MOBE members and Yippies (Youth International Party), that they had “incited a riot.” “It’s a state of mind trial,” says the “real” Hoffman during a TV interview, “I mean, we’re being tried for our thoughts.” In the courtroom, he and fellow Yippie Jerry Rubin gesticulate, speak out of turn, and generally cause a ruckus, infuriating Judge Hoffman, who slaps them with more charges.

Defense attorney William Kunstler (Liev Schreiber) adopts his own theatrics, arguing, “This was not a riot caused by demonstrators, but a riot engineered by the police of this city.” (Kunstler and the other defense counsel, Leonard Weinglass, were convicted of “criminal contempt” by the end of the trial, thus becoming the extra two of this film’s title; like the convictions of their clients, theirs were reversed on appeal.) The prosecution is as ostentatious as the defense; Thomas Foran (Nick Nolte) declares, “These people made unreasonable demands on the city of Chicago.” Contradictory testimonies create competing “histories.” A police officer swears she heard Hoffman urge protestors to “bring a lot of weapons” in order to “take [Lincoln] Park,” while Hoffman recalls saying, “If the cops want the Park, we’ll give ’em the Park. Who gives a shit?” Cartoon flashbacks show hundreds of police in gas masks chasing demonstrators over the grass.

Such different versions of “what happened” are thematic in Chicago 10. The cartoon Rubin (Mark Ruffalo) notes during a stage appearance — college lecture as standup comedy — the addition of Seale to the defendants was a stroke of perverse genius: “Bobby was only in Chicago a couple hours,” Rubin says, “But the government believes in integration, equality, so if it indicts seven, it’s got to add on a black person to make eight. And what could be better than the national chairman of the Black Panther Party. Beautiful.”

It’s alarming and not a little infuriating to see cops beating on demonstrators during the film’s climactic sequence of riot images. As performers like Peter, Paul & Mary try to calm the crowd, the film lurches into footage of brutal assaults with batons, dazed and bloody faces. As these are lined up alongside the animated Seale asserting, “I want to speak on behalf of my constitutional rights, you can’t deny me my constitutional rights,” when Judge Hoffman consents for a moment to have his gag removed, it’s hard not to think of the many other protestors, detainees, and U.S. citizens whose rights are being stifled as we speak.

RATING 8 / 10