The time: August 1968. The place: the Chicago Amphitheater, host to that year's Democratic National Convention. The event: the riots that broke out when an assortment of "hippies, yippees and just plain kids" took to the streets to protest the US' continuing involvement in the Vietnam War. The march and sit-in, originally billed as a "Festival of Life," turned violent when the ramped-up police and National Guard forces, estimated at well over 25,000 strong, began tear-gassing and billy-clubbing the demonstrators on the last night of the convention – in full view of the nation's citizens who watched in shock and amazement as it unfolded on their TV sets at home.
The demonstrations were largely organized by The National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam, from whose leadership ranks would come many of the men destined to go down in the annals of anti-establishment folklore as the Chicago 7 (the 10 of the title comes from the inclusion of Black Panther co-founder Bobby Seale, who had his trial severed, and the two lawyers). After the incident, these men were placed on trial, charged with conspiracy and with violating the Anti-Riot Act of 1968. All seven - David Dellinger, Tom Hayden, Abbie Hoffman, William Kunstler, Jerry Rubin, Rennie Davis and John Froines – were to wind up spending at least some time behind bars for their "crimes." Written and directed by Brett Morgan, the documentary "Chicago 10" blends amazing archival footage with animated re-enactments of the trial – based on actual court transcripts – with A-list actors like Hank Azaria, Nick Nolte, Mark Ruffalo, Roy Scheider and Liev Schreiber providing the voices.
The movie provides a fascinating glimpse into not only those turbulent times but the minds of the men who helped to bring them about. For instance, it's amusing to note how the defendants treated the trial itself almost as if it were some form of subversive street-theater, in the hopes of antagonizing the conservative judge, Julius Hoffman (they really DO seem to have gotten under his skin), and destroying the court's authority in the process. Also, in the months when the trial was going on, the defendants would fan out across the country on their off-hours, lecturing on colleges campuses – with most of the speaking fees going to defray the cost of the trial - raising awareness among the students and becoming counter-culture celebrities and spokesmen for a whole new generation of politically activated youngsters. Then the men would return to Chicago to resume their roles in the trial.
The final twenty minutes or so of the movie - as we watch the government forces move in to disperse the protesters and the subsequent chaos that ensued - are riveting and eye-opening to say the least. But the whole movie is engaging and informative and reminds us of just how fragile a thing the right to free speech and assembly can be even in a country that prides itself on that being the very foundation upon which its democracy is built.
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