Chicago '68, remixed

In this conversation and podcast, director Brett Morgen explains why his exhilarating, controversial "Chicago 10" is about 2008 and not 1968.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published February 28, 2008 10:16AM (EST)

"When I set out to make 'Chicago 10,' I thought I was making this very pop commercial movie," says director Brett Morgen, with one of those expressions that's halfway between a smile and a wince. What he ended up with is a tricky question, but it isn't likely to be that. One of his old college professors, Morgen says, has joked that he managed to make a $4 million experimental film. "Chicago 10," which opened the 2007 Sundance Film Festival, is an uneven, ambitious and frequently exhilarating blend of documentary and narrative that tries to drag the legendary events of Chicago 1968 out of their airless historical vitrine and thrust them upon a new generation of viewers, with some of the immediacy and excitement they must have possessed at the time.

Morgen assembles an amazing collection of videos of the street riots surrounding that year's Democratic National Convention -- color and black-and-white, homemade and professional -- and sets them to contemporary music. No, I mean contemporary to now, not to then; we watch the Chicago cops busting hippie and yippie heads while we bop to Eminem, the Beastie Boys, Rage Against the Machine. To present the infamous conspiracy trial of Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Tom Hayden and the rest of the "Chicago Seven" that followed early in 1969 --Morgen gets to 10 by including bound-and-muzzled Black Panther Bobby Seale and defense attorneys William Kunstler and Leonard Weinglass -- he uses motion-capture animation with actors performing the court transcript.

Problem is, not everyone wants their history remixed -- especially when it actually is their history. Many of the Chicago protesters are still with us, as are some of the Chicago defendants. Movement historian Todd Gitlin and Chicago defendant-turned-politician Tom Hayden, among others, have bristled at various aspects of "Chicago 10," most notably the lack of background interviews or political and historical context. (The assassination of Robert F. Kennedy and the presidential campaign of Eugene McCarthy, for example, are never mentioned.) On that subject he is unrepentant: "The difference between 'Chicago 10' the theatrical movie experience and 'Chicago 10' the History Channel documentary," he says, "is the context and the interviews."

Morgen was eager to meet me because I was among a handful of critics who really liked the film at Sundance last year. This put us in the awkward position of agreeing with each other throughout the conversation: You're right! No, you're right! And everybody else is wrong! In fact, while I still admire the movie tremendously, with a year's distance I can see that Morgen fell afoul of two related phenomena: His own overreaching artistic ambition, and the political and aesthetic conservatism of the film's most plausible audience.

As he admits, Morgen sets out to challenge viewers' assumptions about what is fiction and what truth, about how history becomes calcified as myth and how myth, perhaps, can set us free from the constraints of history. That's a brainy and even arrogant agenda with which to tackle events still remembered, cherished and agonized over by many living people. (Nobody complained, Morgen notes, when he took a similar approach to legendary Hollywood exec Robert Evans' grandiose self-mythologization in his 2002 documentary "The Kid Stays in the Picture.")

Furthermore, even after 40 years American liberalism remains traumatized and half-crippled by the ghosts of the '60s, and constantly preoccupied with trying to smother or ignore any signs of radical-activist renewal. People who remember that decade, and who still control the discourse about it (even if their influence is starting to fade), may be unable to view the outsize figures and events of those years the way Morgen wants us to -- as archetypal mythic heroes or movie characters, divorced from the endless anguish of America's post-'60s culture wars. (Intriguingly, Steven Spielberg and Aaron Sorkin are working on a proposed Hollywood feature about the Chicago Seven trial, potentially to star Sacha Baron Cohen as Abbie Hoffman, Will Smith as Bobby Seale and Philip Seymour Hoffman as William Kunstler. Morgen says he is likely to serve as a consultant.)

For ex-radicals like Todd Gitlin, the only acceptable way to look at 1968 is through a scrim of sackcloth and ashes. Instead of taking to the Chicago streets and getting beaten mercilessly by Mayor Daley's deranged cops, I guess those kids should have stayed home like good little robots and rung doorbells for Hubert H. Humphrey, the odious backroom-compromise candidate served up at that convention. There's no meaningful or knowable answer to the question of whether that would have made for a faster end to the Vietnam War or a better America today, and it's also utterly irrelevant to the point Morgen's movie is trying to make. The summer of 1968 was one of those boiling points that demands high drama on a mythic scale, and the story about war, power and resistance that he captures in "Chicago 10" is one that recurs throughout human history.

Before I could even get my tape recorder out of my bag in Morgen's New York hotel room, he was launched into interlocking stories about his interactions with '60s radicals, his revised expectations for the film and the strange journeys it has taken between the Sundance premiere and final release. He's a shaggy, edgy, likable guy in his mid-30s, whose drive and intellect are obvious. He has directed four feature documentaries and produced three TV series since graduating from film school in 1998. (You can hear a podcast of this interview here.)

You've taken a fair amount of abuse for this film, certainly more than I was expecting and I bet more than you were expecting too.

Well, we're dealing with holy ground here, the 1960s. I've said to Tom Hayden and Todd Gitlin and all those guys: "Don't be worried. Your history's well preserved! You've preserved your history better than any generation that's ever walked this planet. It seems like everyone who was alive in the '60s has written their memoirs. There are countless films and historical documents. And couple that with the fact that you guys have been defining my generation for 25 years: You guys called us Gen-X'ers, you guys called us slackers." Not that my film is an attack on the '60s by any stretch of the imagination. It's celebrating the energy of that moment.

But there's this sense -- Hayden said this thing to the New York Times the other day: "There is a danger in theatricalizing history." I was really taken aback by that. I think history has become something dry and academic, and with "Chicago 10" I very consciously wanted to go back to a time and a place where history wasn't about facts or dates.

There are these great stories that get passed down from generation to generation, and in the process, each generation that inherited a story would make it their own. That's what we call mythology and folklore. Once you accept the fact that there is no such thing as objectivity, and therefore there is no such thing as an objective history, then one should feel free to take license the way I did. At least, if that's what it takes to make history exciting to people who would otherwise have no interest in that history.

When [Sundance head] Geoff Gilmore called me up and invited me to open the festival, he said: "Ninety-five percent of the films we screen preach to the choir. It's just the way things are. What's amazing about 'Chicago 10' is that you made a film for an audience that would never see this film." Now, that should have been a warning right there! At the time, Geoff thought that this film would be a huge hit, would double the gross of "An Inconvenient Truth" or whatever. But when we were trying to sell the film at Sundance, a lot of buyers would say to us, "We can't afford to market this film to the audience you intend this film to reach."

Meaning people about your age and younger?

Well, let's say people under 50. It works twofold, though. One of the best screenings I've ever had was at the Woodstock Film Festival, and there was not one person in the room under 50 in the room. For many of them, it brought back the excitement and the energy. They weren't talking to me about the music or the animation or the lack of Bobby Kennedy or McCarthy. They accepted what it was trying to do, and understood it as a valuable tool, a way to teach younger people what that scene was about.

For anybody who's younger than 50 or 52, it takes this moment of history that we've heard about but have a limited knowledge of, and allows the audience to do what film is uniquely suited to do -- experience it. There are an insane amount of books and films and plays and radio shows about those events, and the one thing I thought was missing was something that allowed me to experience that chaos first-hand.

I see movies like "No End in Sight," and I have a hard time even calling them movies. I think they're essays, and they're incredibly valuable documents. But I'm happy that film didn't win an Oscar, because I just didn't feel it was cinematic. If people voted for that film, they were voting for the politics of the film. Too often in nonfiction, most of us don't take advantage of the full breadth and width of what film has to offer. I'm trying to deviate from broadcast journalism. "No End in Sight" is something I could just as easily watch on television.

Well, if television had any balls, that is.

Yes, exactly. But when people tell me they'll see "Chicago 10" on DVD, I say, "Oh, no!" I wouldn't have made the movie if it was only going to be seen on DVD! I intended it to be this sublime, out-of-body experience, where you need to be penetrated by the visuals, by the sound design. We spent nine months working on the sound design, because we knew that in those riot scenes we could capture the chaos and horror of those moments through sound, in a way you could never accomplish in other media. As long as I've been making nonfiction films, I've been committed to using everything I know about making fiction films and plugging it in. It's an underutilized medium.

American documentary filmmaking, at least right now, is overwhelmingly a form of journalism, or an adjunct to journalism.

I find that problematic, and I think that had a lot to do with the critical reaction to "Chicago 10." If there was a subgenre of documentary that was called "mythology film" or whatever, people would have a better understanding of what I was trying to accomplish. If you try to approach "Chicago 10" through the lens of broadcast journalism, of course you're going to be frustrated every step of the way. From the most simplistic terms -- where are Bobby Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy? Who are the candidates at the convention? -- to the music and the animation.

When we were making "The Kid Stays in the Picture," there weren't a lot of movies we could reference, in terms of the type of film we were making. The critical response and the audience response to that film was very favorable, I guess because it was about Hollywood and it wasn't so sacred. We're treading on different ground here. But one reason I got into nonfiction filmmaking was to make films that challenge people's notions about what is and what isn't nonfiction.

I took this class, when I was at Hampshire College, that studied the whole breadth and width of documentary film history. We started with Lumière and ended with Ross McElwee, and we always came back to the question of how we define documentary. That question has stayed with me for 20 years now. I'm ridiculously passionate and political about trying, in each movie, to force the audience to ask themselves: "Is this a documentary? And if this is a documentary, then what is a documentary?"

One thing that really surprised me was how many people at Sundance were angry about what they perceived as your political bias. People seemed to think you were glorifying the youthful rebels.

I have to say, that's coming from a place of ignorance. Of all the people who wrote about that, I'm the only one who actually heard what happened in that courtroom. We've unearthed actual courtroom audio that no one has heard in 40 years. We're going to release it this week. I can tell you that the depiction of the courtroom scenes by our actors, at least aurally, is spot on. I just read David Denby's review in the New Yorker. I guess I shouldn't be publicizing this, but here's how he starts: "A group of liberated, spontaneous young men ... against the squares and the prissy-voiced elderly ... that's the way the director Brett Morgen conceives the trial of the Chicago Seven, in March, 1969 ... In other words, he sees the trial in the same romantic-revolutionary terms that the defendants and their followers embraced at the time."

I don't know what other take there is on it! It's not like you can do a balanced portrait of that trial! Now, if you think the yippies were jerks, you can certainly make that argument from watching my film. But that judge was outrageous, and so was the prosecutor. And when you talk about the riots in Chicago, they were police riots. They weren't protesters rioting. As we get further away from these events, the take I present in "Chicago 10" will probably become -- well, no, that's not true. I was about to say it will become the dominant take. Ultimately what happens when you make a film about the past is that it becomes a film about the present, and that's why I describe "Chicago 10" as not so much a film about 1968 as a film about 2008.

Graydon Carter, my producer, wanted me to put a lot more context in the film. He's a magazine editor, and he said, "This is how we structure stuff. Bobby Kennedy, blah blah blah." And I said, look, the more context I put in about '68, the more it becomes a film specifically about that, and the less it becomes a timeless fable about a war and opposition to that war and a government trying to silence that opposition.

When I had a press conference at the Locarno Film Festival, a gentleman raised his hand and said, "Were you thinking of Tiananmen Square when you made this film?" The next person said, "Were you thinking of Genoa?" And the next person said, "Were you thinking of Seattle?" I'm not exaggerating; three in a row! And I finally realized: Look, this film is as much about Tiananmen Square as it is about Chicago. It's as much about Seattle as it is about Chicago. It's an ageless, timeless story, and that only comes through because I did not make it more specific to 1968. The more I layered the film with the obligatory '60s montage, the more that roots it in that period and the more it alienates a young audience from getting involved in the film.

I love John Ford's films, and I really think this is a Fordian film. Now, in 1968 he would have taken a six-shooter to these guys [the Chicago defendants] and been confused about which bullet to use on the last two defendants. But if he was viewing it from 40 years removed, I think he'd have seen them as extensions of the characters he celebrated. These were guys who had one foot in civilization and one foot in the wilderness. They were true American heroes who stood up to an oppressive government, the way we celebrated in the Boston Tea Party.

I can remember one critic, an alt-weekly critic younger than me, who was irate about this film: "He doesn't explain that the protesters elected Richard Nixon!"

Todd Gitlin and I got into a big fight about this. Gitlin said to me, "Listen, I loved a lot of things about your film. You really captured the energy of that movement, but you made one huge mistake. You didn't mention that we lost. At the end of the film, you needed to put up a card that explained that 59 million people viewed the events that night on television. Nixon won the election by 500,000 votes, and the war went on for seven more years."

How did you respond?

I said, "That assumes that I'm making a film about 1968. I'm making a fairy tale. More importantly, 59 million Americans in 1968 did not see what my audience is seeing. They saw what the media presented. What we've done 40 years later is reconstruct these events from as many as 50 different sources that nobody's ever seen. I've had people who were in Chicago tell me that my film presents the geography more clearly than they understood it at the time. So an audience watching my film today would never understand how 59 million people watched this and then elected Nixon. It would make no sense.

"In terms of the legacy of this movement, you may say that the Vietnam War went on for seven years. Well, I've spoken to dozens, if not hundreds, of kids who are now inspired to go out and do stuff. The legacy is still being written. Abbie Hoffman, in my perfect world, is still influencing and inspiring kids to get out and stop the war in Iraq."

Sometimes people ask me, "How do you maintain objectivity in your movies?" I say, "Are you kidding me? I'm a filmmaker. There's no room for objectivity in art!" If I had made this film about a band, people wouldn't have the same sense of outrage. When I was on a panel at Sundance, the one with Gitlin, this producer got up in the audience, and she was really pissed: "How dare you make a film about Chicago without mentioning McCarthy?" As if I had forgotten to put him in. "Oh my God, I forgot McCarthy! I've got to get back to the editing room!" Some other guy was like, "You did a great job of capturing the spirit of these events, but where's Phil Ochs?" This third kid, 22 years old, raises his hand and goes, "I don't know who this McCarthy dude is, and I've never heard of Phil Ochs. But your movie rocks, bro."

He wasn't missing anything because he didn't know what he was missing, and the movie worked on its own terms. Those other people knew all that stuff, so what did they need me to put that in for? Can't you view the film on its own terms? I would say to any of those people, you walk me through my movie, and tell me where Bobby Kennedy is supposed to go. You ain't gonna find a place.

What I kept going back to, from a narrative standpoint, is whether Kennedy and McCarthy inform the specific narrative that I'm putting forward. In terms of this through-line -- there's a war, there's opposition to a war, there's a government trying to silence the opposition -- you can get that without introducing those elements, which I also think would totally confuse and alienate a young audience: "What? There were three candidates at a convention? Plus Teddy Kennedy standing in the wings?"

I could have avoided a lot of criticism very easily with this film by using '60s music and talking-head interviews with the survivors. I'd have preserved the history as they want it. But, ugh -- it gives me the creeps to think about that movie! I don't feel like the world needs it. It's been made, and there's no reason to go back there.

"Chicago 10" opens Feb. 29 in New York, Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco and Washington; and March 14 in Baltimore, Denver, Madison, Wis., Minneapolis, Philadelphia, Portland, Ore., San Diego, Seattle and Austin, Texas, with more cities to follow.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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