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Chicago 10: Days of infamy

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"The whole world is watching," antiwar demonstrators shouted during the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago as Mayor Daley's shock troops sprayed them with tear gas and clubbed them like baby seals. And they were right, the whole world was watching, via television - a cataclysmic moment in the country's slide into rebellion and repression. The war in Vietnam had activated a generation of Americans who probably weren't going to grow up to be like their parents anyway. And Chicago, where the liberal establishment was gathering to select a presidential candidate, seemed like a good place to take a stand, bring down a government or at least have a party. Nobody expected it to be a walk in the park, but who could have expected the greeting that Daley had prepared for them? Not without a little provocation, the City of Big Shoulders bared its fangs and went to work.

Those four days have taken their rightful place in the history books, but what if you don't like to read history? Well, then you might want to give Chicago 10 a try. As tense and chaotic as the events themselves, Brett Morgen's documentary is founded on the principle that today's youth (his projected audience, he says) are willing to hear about yesterday's youth as long as you speak to them in today's language. Nobody needs another talking-heads conclave about "the Sixties," so Morgen has gone creative on us, combining more found footage than I knew existed with an animated docudrama of the conspiracy trial that followed the events in August. "History repeating itself as farce," some said about the show trial of the century, where Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin took pot shots at the American justice system. Needless to say, the American justice system took some shots of its own.

And until now, all we've had were the 22,000 pages of transcripts, this particular episode of the revolution not having been televised. But Morgen has turned it into a political cartoon, which, in a way, it already was. For Hoffman and Rubin more or less invented guerrilla theater on the spot, showing up in court wearing judicial robes one day and then, when ordered to remove them, revealing the police uniforms they had on underneath. How'd they get away with it? They didn't. All the defendants, plus their two lawyers (hence the Chicago 10), were cited for contempt. And Bobby Seale, for insisting on his right to defend himself, was chained to his seat and gagged. So much for order in the court, and by animating the proceedings Morgen has brought out the trial's Looney Tunes quality. But the stop-motion animation itself is rather stiff, which is surely not how it felt to sit in that courtroom.

Otherwise, Morgen does a pretty good job of meshing how things must have felt back then with how things feel from here. He puts Eminem, the Beastie Boys and Rage Against the Machine on the soundtrack instead of those golden oldies we're so used to hearing, and the effect is surprisingly moving, the way it ties the two generations together. At its best moments, Chicago 10 feels like a drug-induced fantasia - an acid trip down Memory Lane, with moments of pure Ecstasy.

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