"Documentary" seems like the wrong word to describe Chicago 10; it feels more like a lost piece of agitprop, made 40 years too late. Objective reportage is never a question: The snarky tone and pointed editorializing obliterate any sense of even-handedness. But for those who don't mind their history pre-seasoned with a little phantasmagoria and a lot of sarcasm, Chicago 10 is a hugely entertaining piece of pop fluff, as dynamic and modern as the Beastie Boys cut on the soundtrack.
Director Brett Morgen approaches the story of the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention with the kaleidoscopic lens he brought to bear on Robert Evans in The Kid Stays In The Picture. He uses extensive archival film footage and interviews to set the scene, as Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, and the Youth International Party—the "yippies"—help spark the rallies that drew thousands of young people to Chicago's parks and streets, where they clashed with police over the week leading up to the convention. But the film centers on the subsequent conspiracy trial of Hoffman, Rubin, Tom Hayden, Bobby Seale, and four others, which Morgen recreates in the Bob Sabiston computer-rotoscoping style of Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly. Actors stand in for Hoffman and his colleagues, acting out the transcripts of the notoriously circus-like trial, in which publicity stunts and grandstanding on both sides outweighed any pretense of justice.
Morgen keeps the story lively and vital, in the live-action segments as well as the animated ones; the story zips along, amid modern rock songs, hilarious clips of well-meaning radicals talking about investing their "semen and love vectors" into American peace, and horrifying sequences of those same radicals being brutalized by Chicago cops. But Morgen can't resist using the animation to add a surreal flair: Allen Ginsberg floats everywhere he goes, in full meditative position, and when Hoffman throws a kiss to the jury, the "camera" follows it, Roger Rabbit style. And he goes out of its way to mock the establishment in puerile, cartoony ways, as when the late Roy Scheider gives Judge Julius Hoffman the voice of a senile duck. (This is the man who's shouting, "We do not allow shaking of fists in this courtroom!" He hardly needs Morgen's help to look foolish.) At times, Morgen's intentions are muddy; at others, they're far too stridently clear. Chicago 10 is a lot of fun, but it could stand to take its subjects a little more seriously, if only because they themselves are so frequently goofy that mocking them is complete overkill.