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Review Stew: Chicago 10

Here's what the critics have to say about Brett Morgen's bold new documentary/animation Chicago 10, which marries rotoscoping and archival footage to retell the events that followed the 1968 Democratic National Convention.
Chicago 10 PosterChicago 10, the pioneering new documentary/animation hybrid from Brett Morgen, director of The Kid Stays in the Picture, opened Sundance 2006 and was one of the most discussed films at the festival. Writing for Salon about the film's re-creation of events surrounding the 1968 Democratic National Convention, Andrew O'Hehir declared breathlessly, "In its best moments, and they are considerable, Chicago 10 makes you see 1968, that near-apocalyptic year, with fresh eyes, as an extraordinary turning point in history now at least partly set free from boomer nostalgia and regret. 1 Variety's Todd McCarthy was almost as impressed. While acknowledging that the film was a "biased" piece of "agit-prop," he sees this as justified by the film's underlying intent to incite—just as Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, and their fellow Yippies were accused of intent to incite a riot when the infamous Chicago 7 trial was held the following year: "Underlying it all," McCarthy wrote, "would seem to be an impatience and irritation on Morgen's part with his own generation, and the one yet younger than himself, for not engaging the establishment today the way the Yippies did four decades ago." 2 In the Hollywood Reporter, Kirk Honeycutt acknowledged Morgen's intent, but stated, "The movie's main difficulty is that it fundamentally fails to explain what drove tens of thousands of people into the streets in 1968." 3 While observing that the film's entertainment value is undeniable, he added, "What Morgen ignores are the politics of culture and, pivotally, the politics of the counter-culture"—which would seem to be the beating heart of his story. And Boxoffice's Ray Greene sounded the most discordant note of all, suggesting that the film reflected the worst of Sundance, extended Michael Moore's trashing of documentary as a genre, and manifested the "aging baby boomer's fantasy of perpetual relevance." 4

 

More than a year later, Chicago 10 is finally in theaters, and response to the film remains deeply conflicted. Sure the film reminds us that "now's not too far from then," as more recent Reporter story pointed out—there's an unpopular war, Barack Obama reminds people of Robert Kennedy 5 —but does it offer anything more? For many viewers, including several already mentioned, the film has, as the Village Voice's J. Hoberman puts it, "a deliberate and irritating absence of context," failing to acknowledge any of the other turmoil of '68, and offering "no more historical perspective than if produced in 1970." 6 "Groovy, power to the people!" A.O. Scott of The New York Times remarks sarcastically. 7 Cinematical's Christopher Campbell echoes Honeycutt when he muses, "Cool, but who cares?" The film is, he continues, "a riveting work that's hilarious, accessible, and sure, timeless in some ways. But still maybe a bit useless, too." 8

 

Many also criticized the film for its most distinguishing feature—the use of rotoscoping to recreate scenes from the trial of the Chicago 7, designed to bring out the cartoon-like atmosphere of the courtroom. "The motion-capture animation is the film's fatal flaw," says Slant's Jeremiah Kipp. "The lawyer, judge, and defendants all look like Sims characters—clunky, inexpressive, with faces unable to register emotion." 9 Others objected to the liberties Morgen takes with the animation, like having Allen Ginsberg float, in meditation position, wherever he goes, 10 while still others rejected the animation on principle, like Tony Medley, who said of the characters, "You expect one of them to chomp on a carrot and say, 'Eh, what's up, doc?'" 11 Others objected to the use of politically minded contemporary bands like Rage Against the Machine and Eminem in the soundtrack, finding it distracting and seeing it as evidence of Morgen's pandering. 12

 

This may sound like a mountain of criticism, but even so, many reviewers have seemed inclined to give Morgen credit for doing something bold with provocative and important subject matter: It's "a bit of a mess, but an energetic and ambitious mess," as Peter Sobcynski of eFilmCritic puts it. 13 Perhaps Morgen's comparison of his own film to Space Mountain is apt. 14 It will be interesting to see how viewers take to Morgen's next project, about a loaded subject that's closer to the hearts of the "kids" he seems to be trying to reach with Chicago 10—a "mixed-media portrait" of Kurt Cobain which will draw heavily from archives provided to the director by Courtney Love. "The approach is new, and hopefully through the approach we can find something new to say about these stories," Morgen told The Reeler's S.T. VanAirsdale. 15 Audiences will have to make up their own minds.

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