The cumulative effect of Morgen's film, less a historic chronicle than an incendiary device to fan protest of the current war in Iraq, is one of inconsolable sadness.
Sadness that in 1968, antiwar protests escalated to bloody confrontation when heavily armed police deployed barbed-wire-festooned tanks to deter heavily stoned flower children. Sadness that the constitutional rights of protest organizers and demonstrators were trampled. Sadness that the college-age generation for whom Morgen's film is obviously meant will not learn from it that the protests had the opposite of their intended effect.
In 1968, the demonstrators' chants aroused the so-called Silent Majority, and by a narrow margin of 500,000 votes, seven-tenths of a percentage point, Republican law-and-order candidate Richard Nixon was elected president over Democratic centrist Hubert Humphrey.
This does not merit mention in Morgen's bizarrely context-free film. Nor do other significant events relevant to understanding that tumultuous year.
Morgen paints the political scene in broad strokes. Viewers learn from news footage that there was an unpopular war going on in Vietnam, that students and activists across the country were mobilizing against it and that during these organizing efforts the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.
There is no explanation of why incumbent President Lyndon Johnson did not seek re-election, nor of the charismatic candidates who campaigned to become Democratic Party nominee, Eugene McCarthy and Bobby Kennedy (who was also assassinated). There is no explanation that the protesters included anarchists, socialists and card-carrying Democrats with their own political agendas. Chicago was a perfect storm of protest, fear and authoritarianism that resulted in civil disorder and repression.
A fury-rap soundtrack - including the Beastie Boys, Eminem and Rage Against the Machine - overscores Morgen's impressionistic look at the protests and circus of a trial. (Though the defendants were known as the Chicago 8, in Morgen's calculus they are 10; he includes defense lawyers William Kunstler and Leonard Weinglass, who were cited for contempt by prosecution-friendly Judge Julius J. Hoffman.)
Morgen clearly admires the courtroom antics of Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman as theater of the absurd - and why not? But given the filmmaker's privileged perspective of hindsight, to not consider the real-world repercussions of their theater, to not connect the dots between 1968 and 2008 is a squandered opportunity.
Chicago 10 ** (out of four stars)
Written and directed by Brett Morgen. With the voices of Hank Azaria, Dylan Baker, Nick Nolte, Mark Ruffalo, Roy Scheider, Liev Schreiber and Jeffrey Wright.
Running time: 1 hour, 43 mins.
Parent's guide: R (profanity, sexual candor)
Showing at: Ritz at the Bourse
Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey at 215-854-5402 or email@example.com. Read her blog, "Flickgrrl," at http://go.ophilly.com/flickgrrl/