CINEMA: Show Trial In The Kangaroo Courthouse

chicago10-poster-big.jpg THE CHICAGO 10 (2007, directed by Brett Morgen, 110 minutes, U.S.)

BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC

In 1980, radical activist Abbie Hoffman titled his autobiography “Soon To Be A Major Motion Picture.” Poor Abbie, his revolution never arrived and when he committed suicide in 1989, his Hollywood biopic was nowhere in sight. Robert Greenwald took a well-meaning yet flat-footed stab in 2000 with Steal This Movie (it’s hard to imagine that the hulking Vincent D’Onofrio was anyone’s idea of Abbie Hoffman), and now documentarian Brett (The Kid Stays In The Picture) Morgen tells the story of the 1968 Democratic National Convention and the trial that followed with a shallow and ill-formed animated docudrama, The Chicago 10. The Man has stuck it to Abbie again; they’ve taken his entertaining style of politics and street protest and turned it into mere entertainment.

Although we could use a straight-forward and thoughtful look at the subject, The Chicago 10 seemed to have a potentially winning strategy: To find an immediacy through animation in order to bring to life the explosive events of 40 years ago. Yet the film’s mix of news footage with cartoon-y caricatures, expressionistic landscapes and lifeless computer modeling is constructed in such a scatter-shot manner that the film quickly grates on the brain. Like the worst of Ralph Bakshi, Morgen attempts to give us a “Trip Movie”, overloading the screen with colliding images and blasting its soundtrack of quasi-metal breakdowns and “radical” tunes by the Beastie Boys and Rage Against the Machine, all underlining the wacky little zingers thrown out by Jerry Rubin and Hoffman. Mayor Daley and Judge Hoffman (voiced in a last bow by the late Roy Scheider) are on hand to play the Dean Wormers of the piece while an array of recognizable actors (Nick Nolte, Liev Schreiber and Jeffrey Wright among them) act out the most audacious moments of the Yippies’ much-covered trial on charges of “Inciting a Riot” and connected offenses.

The Chicago 10 attempts to hide behind a layer of objectivity by using only authentic news sources, choosing tochicago10a.jpg animate interviews the Yippies and the authorities gave before the convention and during their lengthy show trial. By sticking almost exclusively to this material, Morgen’s film loses the chance to place the event into any context — events like RFK’s assassination or the convention’s outcome go unmentioned — or to connect it to modern events. What is history if not the path to the present?

What ultimately emerges from this scrambled mess is Abbie Hoffman the comedian. Whether using recordings of his own voice or having comic actor Hank Azaria re-enact the court transcripts (which gives off its own distracting Simpsons vibe), Abbie’s ideas are broken down into short outrageous gags solely meant to grab the camera or tweak the buttocks of the irascible Judge Hoffman. As a comic Abbie is certainly worthy of his own cartoon vehicle, otherwise The Chicago 10 doesn’t quite know what is wants to say about him.

The film’s most original moments come while animating late night interviews Abbie gave on-air with WBAI’s Bob Fass. For a few fleeting moments we hear Abbie unguarded and sans shtick, sounding scared and vulnerable as Judge Hoffman’s highly-biased rulings stack the cards against him. It briefly hints at a much deeper dimension in the material; too bad it ends up drowned out by the tanks, cheap laughs and the music of Eminem.

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