It’s fitting that Chicago 10, a Roadside Attractions release, is opening February 29. It’s a weird, once-every-four-years day, and Chicago 10 is a weird, out-of-time movie. Here we have a 40th-anniversary commemoration/celebration of a Vietnam-era carnival of civil disobedience targeted at a contemporary audience that has shrugged at every Iraq-themed film put in front of it. How what amounts to a lengthy ‘Nam flashback is supposed to get asses off couches and into a movie theater is a puzzle, man.
The director, Brett Morgen, has an idea or two about that. To bring the story of Hollywood rapscallion and lounge lizard Robert Evans to the screen, Morgen’s prior film The Kid Stays in the Picture used cut-out graphics and clever visuals, and to hell with the talking heads. It worked: If you were too tired to pick up Evans’ tome and actually read it, or had purchased the thing but hadn’t gotten it off the shelf, the doc did all the heavy lifting for you, as Evans’ sonorous voice recounted his adventures over all the retro-chic razzmatazz. The Kid Stays in the Picture took the book-on-tape concept and transferred it to film.
With Chicago 10, Morgen and co-producer Graydon Carter extend the experiment, lopping off every device that stinks of traditional documentary. (Carter, whose not having a Vanity Fair Oscar party got almost as much coverage as his having one, wants to define the cutting edge for the form with these pictures.) Voiceover, out. All that place-setting jazz, “It was a time of change in America,” etc., gone, baby, gone. Yes, it’s history, but it’s living history, relevant to our age, so let’s give the Doors and “Smoke on the Water” and whatever else that smacks of its time a rest and rock on with Eminem, Rage Against the Machine, and the Beastie Boys and what the people are listening to today. The actual trial was political theater, so the movie about it must be theater of the real — confrontational, in your face. It must be…animated.
In the press notes, Morgen says that defendant Jerry Rubin called the trial a “cartoon show,” and thus ignited the lightbulb overhanging his head. The film isn’t a total dismissal of the tried-and-true: the script comes off of transcripts, and tweaked-up but perennially unsettling archival footage of thickset Chicago cops busting heads at the Democratic Convention “opens up” the story beyond Judge Julius Hoffman’s courtroom. The trial sequences are, however, pen-and-ink, or rather sensor-and-computer. The motion-capture techniques employed on Beowulf are used here, in a more down-to-earth style that morphs the actual faces of Rubin, Abbie Hoffman, and the rest onto the performers playing them. No need, then, for distracting makeup and costuming. Secure in their aesthetic, you can picture Morgen and Carter writing the epitaph for the on-again, off-again Steven Spielberg/Aaron Sorkin feature about the episode, with Sacha Baron Cohen stuck wearing old-school hairpieces.
Alas, it doesn’t really come off. Motion capture is ideal for flights of fancy, of making tactile and physical the impossible. Watching Chicago 10 — the title incorporates the eight disturbers of the peace and the liberal lawyers, Leonard Weinglass and William Kunstler — I wondered how, say, Liev Schreiber, as Kunstler, felt about wearing little sensors attached to his person as he went through the motions. He doesn’t do anything that needed to be captured. Having the actors perform in character seems like an affectation; having these actors, who include Mark Ruffalo as Rubin, Hank Azaria as Hoffman, and Jeffrey Wright as Black Panther Bobby Seale, transmogrified into animations was clearly a wasted opportunity. They may or may not look like their real-life counterparts, but under different circumstances they could act them well. I agree in principle with what Morgen was trying to do; still, I’d have given this cast the benefit of a (gasp!) makeup test before running them through the computer — their pipes seem strangely disembodied emanating from their filmic faxes.
I’m not really going to go into the politics of the film, because the movie doesn’t, either. It stands somewhere outside history, with the defendants as lefty celebrities cracking wise as prosecution attorney Thomas Foran (Nick Nolte, or Nick Nolte V. 2.0) fumes and sputters. Caught up in the government dragnet for dissidents following the combustible convention and put on trial a year after the event, the guys attempt to make their countercultural case. The reedy-voiced judge, however, continually rules against them, and it all becomes a fracas. The outstanding, outraging moment comes when Hoffman (the late Roy Scheider) has Seale bound, gagged, and handcuffed to his chair, an act so loaded with metaphor it practically defies words. Seale’s eyes do all the talking. For once, the film is no cartoon.
For all the blather and confrontation, what I really wanted was for Chicago 10 to tell us something new. Showing us something new was the easy part, and as it stands a mixed bag conceptually. The hard part is finding continuing relevance in all this behind the externals. (Sorry, guys, putting the Beastie Boys on the soundtrack only brings the party up to about 1996.) The Chicago riots were extensively photographed and televised, and this is not the first film to raid the archives for footage â€” who can forget the immortal meta-moment in the all-the-way-back-to-1969 film Medium Cool, where a fictional camera crew on the Second City streets intersects harrowingly with the police during the actual riot? But the movie can’t shake its sense of cool long enough to bring its war to ours. Whatever the intent, Chicago 10 is something of a trial.