“We’re bigger than the Stones” bragged Vietnam War protester Abbie Hoffman, the loudest of the once-infamous Chicago Eight whose prosecution for conspiracy and inciting a riot during the 1968 Democratic Convention in the Windy City solidified their status as the counter culture’s media darlings. The trial turned them into activist rock stars. The seven members of the goofily anarchic Yippies and more militant Mobe were stunt pacifists; they wore cop’s uniforms and judge’s robes to court, held raucous press conferences, toured like the Dead, and were chased by the paparazzi. (The eighth defendant, Black Panther Bobby Seale, wanted none of it.) Politics and theater merged as the line for courtroom seats stretched around the block by sunrise. Students for a Democratic Society founder Tom Hayden even married Jane Fonda. Hoffman, Hayden, Jerry Rubin, David Dellinger, Rennie David, John Froines, and Lee Weiner have begun to fade into history. Even so, they have more name recognition than any grassroots Iraq War activist save Cindy Sheehan. When Matt Drudge wants to blast peaceniks, he’s still stuck hating on Hanoi Jane.
Brett Morgen’s stirring documentary is designed to make today’s liberals feel flaccid. They took police batons to the head. We might break a nail filling out another Internet petition. Our most active zealots canvass for Lyndon Larouche and post dewy MySpace bulletins about Ron Paul. But while Morgen’s half-animated, selectively factual doc touts the passion of these political provocateurs, it never questions whether their tactics worked. The heart soars when Hoffman (whose crazy ‘fro was made for cartoons) says that the government can’t buy his compliance for anything but his life. Too bad he and the others tended to act out a 5th grader’s idea of insubordination with bagged shit grenades and pothead comedy sketches. As Michael Moore has demonstrated, it doesn’t matter how right you are if you act like an idiot.
What unfolded in Chicago was grand scale idiocy. The police, in full view of cameras, hammered away at weaponless kids. The kids, in turn, baited the cops into unleashing their batons and pepper spray. (The Yippie’s unofficial motto was: “Do what you want, when you want to, but make sure to get photographed.”) Both anticipated the melee. Morgen digs up footage of both camps of badges and bohemians practicing their phalanx. But while Morgen faults Chicago’s Mayor Daley for his advance warning that his officers could “shoot to kill,” he skims over the Yippie’s loud threats to throw nails on the freeways, block off the city with scrapped cars, storm the amphitheater, and pour LSD in the city’s water supply. Sounds improbable, but anything felt possible in a year that had already weathered two major assassinations, five serious riots, and the largest generational schism since Bernice bobbed her hair.
As a peace-loving liberal, cross-examining Morgen’s rousing, worthy, but slanted film is as fun as kicking yourself in the shins (or watching Clinton tear into Obama). But I’m tired of my generation getting slagged off by the boomers when the only clear result of their rock-and-pot protests is that Nixon got elected. The courtroom scenes (animated from transcripts) have frisson when defense lawyers William Kunstler and Leonard Weinglass argue elegantly for their clients’—and by extension, America’s—freedom to challenge their government’s war. (Both were slapped with contempt charges, rising the film’s title to 10.) There’s fury when Judge Julius Hoffman (voiced like a snaky arch villain by the late Roy Schieder) binds and gags Bobby Seale for demanding his constitutional rights. Yet there’s also so much slapstick comedy in the defendants attempts to provoke the septuagenarian judge (who, granted, seems to have hated them on sight) that their trial often comes across like the ultimate publicity stunt—even with Morgen leaving out choice bits like Abbie Hoffman offering to hook up Judge Hoffman with his acid dealer.
Still, it’s impossible to stay calm watching reels of protesters get clubbed like baby seals to Morgen’s hip, but well-chosen modern soundtrack of Rage Against the Machine, more Rage Against the Machine, and Eminem (the latter sounding relevant for the first time in three years). My hands balled into fists as a small, plump, and bleeding grandmother in light pink knits got thrown into a paddy wagon while singing “We Shall Overcome.” The most resonant moment, however, comes from a news broadcast watching the seven and eight-year-old kids of Chicago mock-bludgeon each other in a schoolyard make-believe of Cops and Protesters. Adds the newscaster, “It’s a relatively new game . . . but the difference is in this—no one ever wins.”