Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by the week’s new releases or premieres. This week: With the sleep paralysis documentary The Nightmare opening in select theaters, we look back on others docs that boldly or effectively employ dramatic recreations.
Chicago 10 (2007)
There’s not a single talking head in Chicago 10, Brett Morgen’s electrifying documentary on the 1968 Chicago protests and the subsequent trial of eight prominent organizers (their lawyers made 10) accused of inciting riots. In place of the usual formal interviews, Morgen relies on archival footage of the demonstrations (and ensuing police brutality), contemporaneous news segments, and audio recordings of the defendants. But his boldest, most divisive decision is how he handles the courtroom material: Because there’s no actual footage of the trial, the director hired a bunch of famous actors—including Hank Azaria, Nick Nolte, Roy Scheider, Jeffrey Wright, and Mark Ruffalo—to read the transcripts, then used motion-capture animation to flesh them out. Instead of hearing people talk about something that happened decades ago, we’re seeing it unfold for ourselves. The effect is a present tense rather than a past tense, a firsthand glimpse instead of a secondhand account.
Chicago 10, in other words, is a documentary designed to rouse a rabble, mostly by drawing a bold line between the anti-war activism of the late 1960s and what Morgen saw, back in 2007, as the lack of a comparable modern movement. (The choice to set protest footage to anachronistic music from Rage Against The Machine, the Beastie Boys, and Eminem hammers the point home.) Morgen made the film, of course, before Occupy Wall Street or the demonstrations in Baltimore and Ferguson; in some respects, Chicago 10 doesn’t just look back on a period of civic unrest, but also anticipates a new one. What’s more, it offers inadvertent insight as to what Occupy, in particular, might have been missing: a leader as charismatic and inspirational as Abbie Hoffman, the counter-cultural prankster spokesperson of the Yippies. His spirit permeates the movie, captured as it is through both recovered recordings of the anarchist and Azaria’s energetic imitation.
As in this year’s exceptional Montage Of Heck, Morgen’s arresting mixed-modes strategy takes some getting used to. That goes especially for the trial scenes; the animation is a bit unsightly, at least to modern eyes, and the sound of Zack De La Rocha spitting wisdom somehow seems more incongruous during these recreations than it does when accompanying actual celluloid images from the era. But it’s all worth it just to get a peak into that kangaroo courtroom, and at the outrageous spectacle of men like Black Panthers co-founder Bobby Seale—literally bound and gagged for refusing to be shouted down—butting heads with the openly, brazenly contemptuous legal system. The trial really was, as Jerry Rubin put it, a “cartoon show.” Animation only helps animate its absurdity.
Availability: Chicago 10 is available on DVD through Netflix or possibly your local video store/library. It can also be purchased digitally through Amazon.