How do you make a movie out of the Chicago 7 trial? A mad counterculture circus of yippies, antiwar activists, and other leaders of the 1968 Chicago protests who were branded as ''conspirators,'' the trial was born to be a documentary. But no cameras were let in the courtroom, so Brett Morgen, director of Chicago 10, opts for an innovative strategy. He presents the trial in rowdy animated sequences, with actors reading the roles (Hank Azaria as Abbie Hoffman, Liev Schreiber as William Kunstler, etc.) in dialogue lifted from court transcripts. The result doesn't quite work and not just because the jelly-faced cartoon figures look like rotoscoped androids who just stepped out of the sequel you never wanted to see to Waking Life. The real problem is the vocal per¬formances. Every line is spoken with a stagy rim-shot vitality, as if Morgen had to keep reminding us that the trial wasn't just a trial it was theater, man! What you miss is how the defendants, in that dull bureaucratic courtroom, became bound, in spirit, to the world they were attacking.
That said, Chicago 10 is well worth seeing, if only because a good half of the film is devoted to extraordinary footage of the four days of rage that spawned the trial. The escalating clash between protesters and Mayor Daley's cops at the 1968 Democratic Convention has never been presented this fully, and it unfolds as a revelatory chunk of social history. It was the day that America, in Walter Cronkite's own words, became a police state. And also woke up from it. B