In retrospect it seems obvious that a film about one of the greatest tragedies of the 1960s youth movement should be explosively inventive and innovative, but years of blandly pandering films aimed squarely at sentimental Boomers have blunted a basic truth: art about radicals needs to be radical itself. While it would be arguing too much to say that Chicago 10 pushes the limits of its form as much as e.g. Jean-Luc Godard's early Marxist narratives did, there's no doubt that it's the first American movie in literally decades that even begins to tap into the excitement that nostalgic 60-year-olds claim was so prevalent at the time. For this if nothing else, we must salute and praise the film.

That said, it would still be a pretty amazing experience even if it wasn't based on fact and not a single member of the audience had even the slightest context for what the hell "The Sixties" were. It's notionally a documentary, but there aren't many documentarians willing mix stock footage, animated reenactments, and defiantly anachronistic musical cues with quite the same brio as Brett Morgen - who, it surely must be pointed out, was not remotely of age to be part of the youth movement, if indeed he was alive at all (I haven't been able to find his birth date, but he sure as hell doesn't look more than 40). His last film, the Robert Evans documentary The Kid Stays in the Picture, was thoroughly invigorating and fun, but it has nothing on the exhilarating stretchiness of the director's newest project, pointlessly delayed from a splashy premiere at Sundance in 2007.

Since Morgen's very clear stated goal is to raise awareness amongst the under-50 set about just what happened in August, 1968 and the months thereafter, I will do my part with a bit of the old historic summary: during the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, thousands of protesters camped out in Lincoln Park, encouraged by the radical youth political performance artists, the Yippies. Different people will come up with different explanations for who did what to whom first, but the short version is that within a few days, a whole lot of hippies had been rather brutally beaten by the Chicago Police Department. This obviously called for blaming the hippies, and in March, 1969, eight men were indicted on charges related to conspiracy to provoke a riot: Rennie Davis, David Dellinger, John Froines, Tom Hayden, Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Bobby Seale and Lee Weiner. Their lawyers, eventually brought up on contempt charges, were William Kunstler and Leonard Weinglass. These ten men give the film its title, despite the tradition of referring to the trial of the Chicago 7; Rubin once suggested that such a designation was racist (ignoring Seale, who was eventually tried separately), and unfair to the lawyers. I look forward to watching Steven Spielberg and Aaron Sorkin trip up on that question during a press conference for the upcoming Trial of the Chicago 7 (edited to add, October 2020: but not, as it turned out, upcoming at all soon).

But let us not muddy the waters with an upcoming bit of Oscarbait. We are here to talk about Chicago 10, a film that combines archival footage of the events of August '68 with computer-rotoscoped reenactments of the trial itself, voiced by an unexpectedly good cast including Hank Azaria, Liev Schreiber, Dylan Baker, Nick Nolte, Jeffrey Wright, and the late Roy Scheider. Subsequent interviews about the riots are shown in live action; interviews about the trial are animated (generally, not without exception).

That division is not at all arbitrary. The film's purpose is twofold: raise awareness of what exactly happened at the riots, and point out that the trial was a dog-and-pony show that was deliberately subverted by the theatrical interruptions of the Yippies. In that sense, it makes sense that it's a cartoon, and I like to imagine that Rubin and Hoffman would have been pleased by the result if they were still alive. While the riot footage is meant to be outrageous and perhaps to remind us of a much more recent example of a corrupt, warmongering time in US history, the courtroom scenes are meant to show up the falsity of a system that does not serve truth and justice, but the needs of the status quo.

That Morgen wants us to connect the peace movement in 1968 with the modern anti-war grassroots is beyond doubt. This, I believe, is behind his unexpected and frankly brave move to score the film with the Beasties Boys and Rage Against the Machine and Eminem's 2004 anti-Bush track "Mosh" instead of the expected period-appropriate anthems (they do appear, but only as they naturally appeared in the vintage footage). That fact that the music is neither contemporaneous to the events, nor contemporary to the film works in its favor: it's out of time, in a way, and it strips the images that it underscores of their timeliness. Thus are the events of four decades past made fresh and raw.

Now, in the grand scheme of things, Chicago 10 isn't some kind of epoch-defining work of art. Its greatest achievement, no question, is simply that it rescues a period of modern history from its suffocating blanket of respect and worship. This is the first film about the '60s in I don't know how long that actually gets the blood pumping; it is at once angry and fun, and most importantly, its message is as relevant to 2008 as to 1968. No musty museum piece this, but a potent reminder that in politics as in everything else, life is the same damn thing over and over again, and thank God for the crazies willing to point out how absurd that fact is, no matter what the personal cost.