'The Weather Underground' is a fascinating, thought-provoking film from start to finish.

James Plath's picture

"Within the next 14 days we will attack a symbol or institution of American injustice."

That warning came not from al-Qaida, but from the Weather Underground, a radical faction of Students for a Democratic Society that wrestled control of SDS in 1969 and became America's most notorious revolutionaries. They launched the violent "Day of Rage" in Chicago, bombed the U.S. Capitol building, and sprung LSD-advocate Timothy Leary from a Federal prison. An FBI unit was assigned the task of apprehending or at least stopping them, yet they eluded capture. "We wanted to deliver the biggest hit that the United States has ever felt," one of them said on camera. "We wanted this country to taste a tiny bit of what it was dishing out."

This 2003 Academy Award nominee for Best Documentary Feature not only chronicles the rise and fall of the legendary radicals, but also captures the turmoil of the Vietnam years. "Freaks are revolutionaries, and revolutionaries are freaks," the first Weathermen communiqué explained. "If you want to find us, this is where we are: in every tribe, commune, dormitory, farm house, barracks and townhouse, where kids are making love, smoking dope, and loading guns." Directors Sam Green and Bill Siegel assembled some stunning archival footage and photos from the Sixties, many of which are quite different from the usual clips, or else are longer segments of stock footage. There are newscasts, footage of bloody demonstrations and seldom seen shots from the Vietnam War, graphic photos of the Charles Manson massacre victims—even FBI surveillance photos. But what makes this film really work are the interviews that Green and Siegel conducted with many of the Weathermen, and one of the FBI agents who pursued them.

"I'm a teacher now in a community college," former Weatherman Mark Rudd says, "and my students will bring up the war in Vietnam and ask me what my involvement was. And I'll say, ‘Well, I helped found an organization whose goal was the violent overthrow of the Government of the United States.' And my students will look at me as if I'm from another planet."

Who can blame them? It's hard to believe that a group of 20 year olds from the Love Generation sincerely thought that it was up to them to save the planet by bringing the Nixon administration to its knees. "When you feel you have right on your side, you can do some horrific things," says Todd Gitlin, another former Weatherman. Laura Whitehorn, Bernardine Dohrn, Naomi Jaffe, Bill Ayers, Brian Flanagan, David Gilbert, Gitlin and Rudd are featured in extensive interview clips that don't intrude at all on the narrative. In part, that's because these were modern-day Bonnie & Clydes who successfully evaded one of the largest FBI manhunts in U.S. history. Mostly, though, it's fascinating to hear how they feel now. After all, these were peaceniks who were driven to make and use high-explosive bombs. Though no one was ever killed in their attacks (by design), it's still a contradiction of the highest sort—like the anti-abortion protesters who resort to killing doctors or bombing clinics in order to "save lives." In the interviews, several were remorseful, several had no change of attitude and said they would do it all over again, but most were conflicted and still trying to reconcile their noble intentions and violent actions. Gilbert, who's serving a life sentence in Comstock Prison, admitted that mistakes were made, but added, "I was fighting for a just cause. Was that the motivation, was there a need to do something about what was going on? Yes, there was." But what? That's where several of the former Weathermen admit to being perplexed, both then and now. What's to be done?

Filmmakers Green and Siegel hope that the film sparks a national dialogue about "some of the most important questions facing people today," including "How do ‘we the people' dissent effectively and responsibly if a presidential administration seems unwilling to respond to popular will?" That barrage is aimed squarely at the Bush administration, and more than a few Weathermen talk about the eerie "history repeats itself" similarities between the arrogant former President Nixon's response to public outrage over a war that much of the world saw as U.S. aggression and the current president's attitudes toward those who oppose his pre-emptive attack on Iraq. The filmmakers began interviewing Weathermen in 1998, but as events unfolded they began to realize that their documentary could be much more relevant than they had imagined. Certainly, there are enough lines to spark debate in any social studies class or living room full of friends. When an unwanted war with "wholesale murders" is being conducted by your government, are you a parcel to the crime if you do nothing? That question alone should launch a barrage of comments. The issue of right vs. wrong is always at the forefront in this film, with one former Weatherman drawing the ire of others when he compares what the group did to the al-Qaida terrorists who reduced the World Trade Center to rubble. When you think you're on high moral ground, he adds, you're capable of doing crazy and destructive things. And the Vietnam War made us all a bit crazy, he says.

With so much archival material, the quality will obviously vary. Some of the early newscasts look like static-blurred Max Headroom shots, while footage shot from Vietnam-era planes has an ethereal blurred quality. Present-day interviews are bright and clear, and for the most part the archival black and white footage is decent.

The Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo provides sufficient sound, since most of the audio is voiceover and interview commentary. No complaints, given the archival nature of much of the material. In fact, when you listen to the raw first communiqué you realize how much the filmmakers had to clean up the clip that they used for their film, and presumably did so with other vintage tapes.

There are some nice surprises in this little package, including two full-length commentaries. The first features director-producer Green, who talks about how he went about finding the Weathermen some 30 years after their zenith, and discusses what he was trying to do with each segment. It's good, but the commentary featuring Weathermen co-founders Dohrn and Ayers is much better. The pair were obviously put in front of a microphone and left alone. The result is absolutely candid, and the complexity of their actions and motivations surfaces time and again, with Ayers questioning whether they were right and Dohrn resolutely defending what they did. There are some offbeat moments too, as when Dohrn points out parts in the documentary which offended her—including a gauzy illustration of naked bodies writhing around, in order to lend a visual to the voiceover which told how the group practiced "smash monogamy." "Obviously the filmmakers have never been in an orgy," Dohrn says, while Ayers adds, "This is fantasy filmmaking, not documentary filmmaking." What's just as interesting is the pair's silences when one of their former comrades who's more penitent says something critical about their activities.

Also included are two LONG original audio communiqués (the first and fifth)—though the first is so fuzzy it's hard to hear what Dohrn is saying. Then there's an excerpt from "Underground," a 1976 film by Emile de Antonio shot while the group was still on the FBI "most wanted" list, and a long interview with Gilbert, who is the only member of the group still in prison. The interview is decent, but you have to wonder if it was a trade-off for the group's participation, because viewers are encouraged to protest Gilbert's being held as a "political prisoner" for his involvement in a robbery in which three guards were killed. Rounding out the extras: read-along filmmaker statement and bios, and 12 scene access points for a 92-minute feature.

Bottom Line:
"The Weather Underground" is a fascinating, thought-provoking film from start to finish. Green and Siegel avoid making a one-sided political statement, and also manage to downplay any perceived parallels to the situation in Iraq. Though it would have been useful to have an account of how all but one of the fugitives came to be free citizens again, the filmmakers zero in on other watershed moments in the group's history: how the accidental explosion that killed three bomb-building Weathermen drove them underground and alerted the FBI to the group's potential danger, how the Chicago police slaying of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton pushed them to stop talking about violence and take action, and how the end of the Vietnam war precipitated the group's disbanding. It's a historical document of great value, and a moral gut-check that poses more questions than answers.


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