'Chicago 10' demonstrates now's not too far from then


There's an unpopular war. There's an insurgent candidate, attracting a huge wave of support, who opposes that war. He's facing off against another candidate who voted to authorize the war but now supports its end, and he could do battle with yet another candidate who supports the current surge. Meanwhile, the Democratic contest is heading toward what could be a contentious convention.

Although the parallels are by no means exact, the current political season rumbles with definite echoes of the tumultuous months that led up to the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago and the surrounding bloody confrontation between demonstrators and police.

Brett Morgen's new documentary "Chicago 10," which Roadside Attractions is opening today in limited release, brings that moment to vivid life. The movie offers up a wealth of documentary footage; editing it, the director says, was like editing an action flick. It also features an animated reconstruction of the federal conspiracy-to-riot trial that brought a raucous group of defendants -- such antiwar activists as Tom Hayden, Rennie Davis and David Dellinger, Yippies Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin and Black Panther Bobby Seale -- to the courtroom of Judge Julius Hoffman.

Since the film's debut at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival, some boomers have complained that Morgen (who previously experimented with docu conventions in 2002's Robert Evans profile "The Kid Stays in the Picture") doesn't provide a full accounting of the historical setting that saw the political demise of President Johnson, the rise of political challenger Eugene McCarthy and then Robert Kennedy, followed by Kennedy's assassination, all leading to the nomination of Vice President Hubert Humphrey at the embattled convention.

Morgen, who was born in October 1968, says that was intentional, explaining that the film wasn't made to play to boomer nostalgia but rather to speak to younger audiences. "The more we preach about '68, the more we alienate younger audiences my age or younger," he says.

As the movie shifts between the escalating street demonstrations and the courtroom showdown, Morgen freely alters the trial's chronology. For example, the judge's move to silence Seale by gagging him and chaining him to a chair -- events that occurred during the early weeks of the trail -- are presented as a climactic high point.

"What happened in the streets is a mirror of what happened in the courtroom," Morgen says. "I thought it made a lot of sense to reconstruct the chronology so that audiences could judge the parallels."

But for all the surface similarities between then and now -- which have taken their most dramatic expression in the parallel campaigns of Kennedy and Democratic Sen. Barack Obama -- the world of '68 is quite different than today. For one thing, back then, if you wanted to make your voice heard, you literally took to the streets. Now, you're more likely to take to the Web. Activist production company Participant, one of the film's producers, even has created a Web address, www.takepart.com/Chicago10, to channel any of the political energy the movie inspires.

"I wouldn't advocate going to the streets. It didn't prove anything in the '60s. The war went on for years," Morgen says. "But I think one of the messages of 'Chicago 10' -- and I think everyone can extract their own message -- is that it asks audiences, 'How far are you willing to go for your ideals?' "