By ADAM LIPTAK
Published: February 24, 2008
MORE than a year after the 1968 Democratic National Convention in
Chicago transformed the culture wars from metaphor to mayhem, Norman
Mailer was still trying to make sense of what had happened.
Mr. Mailer, under oath as a witness in a federal conspiracy trial,
recalled a 1967 conversation with Jerry Rubin, the Yippie leader and
provocateur, about a "youth festival" that groups opposed to the
Vietnam War were planning as a convention counterpoint.
"I was overtaken with the audacity of the idea," Mr. Mailer
testified, "and I said, 'It's a beautiful and frightening idea.' "
The protests, the brutal reaction of the police, and the conspiracy
trial of eight leaders of the antiwar movement that followed are the
subjects of a new documentary, "Chicago 10." Mr. Mailer, who died in
November, was an animated witness at the trial, according to
contemporary news accounts. And he is animated in "Chicago 10" too,
in a second sense as a cartoon.
In the documentary, he and the other witnesses, defendants and
lawyers are rendered with motion-capture technology like that in "The
Polar Express" and "Beowulf" and with actors' voices, including those
of Mark Ruffalo (as Mr. Rubin), Jeffrey Wright (as the Black Panther
Bobby Seale) and Liev Schreiber (as the radical defense lawyer
The effect is an idiosyncratic effort to reclaim and perhaps redefine
the spirit of the 1960s. The film makes the case that the Yippies
more pranksters than politicians, more punks than hippies provided
a lasting template for revolutionary engagement through anarchy and ridicule.
"Chicago 10" has met with mixed reactions from the dwindling number
of people who saw the trial firsthand, and its reception at the
Sundance Film Festival last year was lukewarm. ("The pic opened the
fest," Variety reported, "but by the next day its buzz was all but
dead.") Enthusiasm from younger leftists eager for inspiration, on
the other hand, seems high.
In addition to the trial sequences, the film presents raw archival
footage of the Chicago police department's savage response to the
protests. Brett Morgen, the film's writer and director, married that
footage with throbbing music from Rage Against the Machine, Black
Sabbath and the Beastie Boys, forgoing the usual '60s soundtrack.
Mr. Morgen, who co-directed "The Kid Stays in the Picture," about the
film producer Robert Evans, was born two months after the convention.
In an interview in his office in Rockaway, Queens, a block from the
beach and above a store that sells sneakers, he said he had aimed to
avoid treating a turning point in the history of the counterculture
as sacred ground.
"The world simply did not need another movie about the '60s made by
someone from the '60s," said Mr. Morgen, who is scruffy and
longhaired but not especially mellow. "We weren't making a movie
about 1968 per se. I don't want to smell patchouli. I don't want to
Graydon Carter, the editor of Vanity Fair and a producer of "The Kid
Stays in the Picture," produced "Chicago 10" with Mr. Morgen. He said
it was the product of political frustration in the early days of the
Iraq war an anger that has infused his monthly editor's note and
the contents of his magazine and an attempt to rouse young people
to action. "I became incredibly upset," he said, "that this young
generation of Americans seemed to have no interests at all in the
origins of the war in Iraq, the rightness of the war or the
possibility of ending the war."
"Chicago 10," which opens Friday in New York, Los Angeles, San
Francisco, Boston, Chicago and Washington, has no narration or fresh
interviews. Instead it uses the animated trial sequences to explain
what went on in the streets, even as it explores the extended farce
that was the Chicago conspiracy trial.
Many of the protagonists in the trial are dead now, including the
irascible judge, Julius H. Hoffman; Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman,
the Yippies at the center of the film; and Mr. Kunstler, who
represented his clients with gusto and verve and was repaid with
Some of the remaining participants have their reservations about Mr.
"I was very impressed with the newsreel footage they got," said
Leonard Weinglass, the other main defense lawyer, who was also held
in contempt. "It really conveyed the horror of being on the street.
But for the actual trial itself, the film was drained of its
Mr. Morgen focuses on the comic moments in the trial, of which there
were many, and on Judge Hoffman's decision to bind and gag Mr. Seale,
the only black defendant, after he insisted on defending himself. The
film is scrupulously accurate, relying on 22,000 pages of trial
transcripts. But it is also highly selective, distilling that
transcript to about 30 pages of script.
Mr. Weinglass said he would have made different choices. "The trial
was really about the war and racism and the alternative lifestyle,"
he said. "The film is entertainment, but it is not a political education."
He had another complaint. "Never in my life have I had a lavender
suit," he said, objecting to his cartoon garb.
Mr. Morgen said he reviewed 180 hours of archival footage and chose
scenes with visceral power. But some of the omissions are jarring:
Robert F. Kennedy, assassinated that June, is not mentioned, and nor
are the names of the candidates vying for the nomination.
That was deliberate, Mr. Morgen said, and part of an effort to reach
a young audience. "I didn't want to make a film that read like a
Cliff's Notes to an era," he said. Finding the right way to convey
the story of the trial was grueling, Mr. Morgen said. There was,
first of all, too much information: eight defendants facing a complex
"We're charged with carrying certain ideas across state lines," Mr.
Hoffman, voiced by Hank Azaria, says in a scene set in a nightclub,
which is not a bad summary of the incitement counts the defendants
faced. After Mr. Seale's case was severed from that of the main group
of defendants, they came to be known as the Chicago Seven. Mr. Morgen
called his film "Chicago 10," he said, to honor Mr. Seale and the two
defense lawyers. The convictions of all of the defendants were
The journalist Paul Krassner, who came up with the term Yippie, for
Youth International Party, and who consulted on the film with Mr.
Morgen, said he thought the documentary succeeded on its own terms.
"It's certainly a slice of countercultural history, with an agenda,"
Mr. Krassner said. But Mr. Krassner said the film may be
counterproductive. "Ironically," he said, "seeing the footage of the
sadistic and indiscriminate brutality of the police could frighten
some moviegoers into inaction."
Tom Hayden, a defendant and a leader of Students for a Democratic
Society who was in many ways a more substantial figure than the two
Yippies, is relegated to the sidelines.
"I think the film captures the spirit of intensity, of desperate
acts, of things falling apart in that year," Mr. Hayden said. But the
film's perspective is partial, he added: "This is an Abbie Hoffman
story. Abbie was a great rebel, but there is a danger in
There may soon be a second take on the trial, this one by Steven
Spielberg, in a feature film that would almost certainly be more
conventional and accessible than "Chicago 10." The script for the
film, "The Trial of the Chicago Seven," is by Aaron Sorkin ("The West
Wing" and "Charlie Wilson's War"), and Mr. Spielberg is said to be
considering Sacha Baron Cohen for the role of Abbie Hoffman and
Philip Seymour Hoffman to play William Kunstler.
Mr. Morgen said he was delighted.
"We've been consulting with them and providing them with our
databases," he said. "We made this movie to try to get the story out.
A documentary ultimately is going to have a limited audience. A
Spielberg film is going to have a limitless audience."