Although a certain Democratic presidential candidate known for his way with words has declared that the debates of the 1960s are over, a psychedelic new documentary from Brett Morgen (The Kid Stays in the Picture) suggests that the culture wars born in that decade aren’t six feet under just yet. Chicago 10 debuted to acclaim at Sundance last year, and its topic — the prosecution of the Chicago Eight, who protested treacly party unity during wartime at the 1968 Democratic National Convention — is even more apposite now.
If the film is essentially a traditional courtroom drama, Morgen’s approach at least is fresh. Intercut with archival news footage, the movie recounts the story of an American circus trial using digital animation and well-known actors to voice the radicals and their accusers. (The latter device works better in some cases than in others: Hank Azaria may be a crackerjack ventriloquist on The Simpsons, but he’s unconvincing here as the highly imitable Allen Ginsberg, and his rendition of Yippie provocateur Abbie Hoffman sounds like an average Moe.) Morgen also eschews classic rock staples in favor of Eminem, the Beastie Boys and Rage Against the Machine — odd choices given that he’s targeting the under-30 audience, not coots like me. But when these updated elements click, the vibe is retro groovy and at the same time wholly contemporary — not so much a hippie’s peaced-out LSD vision as the collective dream of my X-laced generation.
In all respects, Chicago 10 is maddeningly uneven. Morgen isn’t interested, as a conventional documentarian might be, in critiquing 1960s ideology. Ultimately, the film scans best as a Rorschach exam, testing the limits of your patience for unreconstructed hippie nostalgia.
Opens February 29