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The Weather Underground
Upstate Films
Official Site
Directors: Sam Green, Bill Siegel
Producers: Sam Green, Bill Siegel, Carrie Lozano, Marc Smolowitz
Featuring: Lili Taylor, Bill Ayers, Kathleen Cleaver, Bernadine Dohrn, Brian Flanagan, Todd Gitlin, Naomi Jaffe, Mark Rudd, David Gilbert, Don Strickland, Laura Whitehorn

Rating: out of 5

In his book Balsamic Dreams, which lampoons the pretensions of Baby Boomers, humorist Joe Queenan cites the Chilean wine boycott as a prime example of the Boomers vacuous statement politics. Besides its unsurprising failure to oust right-wing dictator Augusto Pinochet, the boycott was hardly much of a sacrifice either. As Joe points out, giving up Chilean wine is not quite the same as giving up, say, sedatives or oral sex, or for that matter French, Italian, or California wine. Instead of merely giving up mediocre wine to protest the Chilean coup, members of the radical Weather Underground planted a bomb. While it was no more effective in toppling the Pinochet regime, the bombing proved, if nothing else, that they weren’t apathetic.

The Weather Underground were, along with the Symbionese Liberation Army, the most notorious American terrorist outfit in the United States during the 1970s. Mostly in their 20s, and many coming from very privileged backgrounds, the Weathermen were counterculture radicals who planted bombs, robbed banks, and tried to foment a violent revolution that would overthrow the government of the United States. Green and Siegel, children of the ’70s, have gotten together a few of the ex-radicals and put together a sympathetic chronicle of their rise and fall.

The group started out as a militant faction of the large, mainstream leftist organization Students for a Democratic Society. Taking their name from a Bob Dylan lyric, they managed to bully their way into the leadership of the SDS and turn it away from non-violent protests. They organized the infamous Days of Rage in Chicago, a four-day rampage designed to “Bring the War Home”. Soon the SDS crumbled, but the Weathermen marched on. Their politics were infantile, “kindergarten ideas of Marxism,” according to Todd Gitlin, a former president of the SDS. Not really all that evangelical, the Weathermen were convinced that the revolution was already underway and if you didn’t “dig it” you were a “pig.” (Indeed this is the way they talked all the time, even in their “war communiqués.”) Soon after the Days of Rage, several members of the group were forced underground after a bomb accidentally exploded in a Weatherman townhouse, killing three members. The bomb that killed them was meant for a service dance at Fort Dix. From there Weathermen carried out a series of bombings aimed at the government or at corporations, usually done in retaliation for some perceived crime against fellow revolutionaries in the U.S. or abroad. Although rhetorically any American, or at least any white American, was fair game because of what was going on in Vietnam, the Weathermen’s bombs never killed anyone outside the organization.

The interviews with the former members provide a panorama of reflections about the period. All speak about the Vietnam War with abject horror, but they have their own conclusions about the crimes they committed to protest it. The group’s leader, Bernadine Dorn, and her husband Bill Ayers remain recalcitrant and seem to regret nothing. (In fact in Ayers’ book Fugitive Days he laments that there weren’t more bombings.) Amazingly, after a decade on the run these two are now respectable members of academia, proving that Lynn Cheney might not be so crazy after all. A soft-spoken David Gilbert also affirms that his cause was “just” from prison, where he is serving 75 years for his part in a 1981 bank robbery that killed three people. Others are less certain about the righteousness of their cause. Mark Rudd, once a high-profile student leader in the protests that shut down Columbia University, is now a math teacher at a community college in New Mexico. He seems a bit overwhelmed recalling the events of his past life. Only Brian Flanagan, a bar owner in New York, seems to fully regret his time with the Weathermen, and he’s the only one to connect their sense of moral superiority to the terrorism we see today. (All of this is complimented by one of those montages of ubiquitous ’60s images; you have to wonder, do these come prepackaged now? Haven’t we all seen this stuff a million times? “Okay I want MLK, and then the little naked girl running from napalm, then Nixon smiling, and we end on the Hell’s Angels beating up Marty Balantin at Altamont.”)

At one point in the film Todd Gitlin compares the mistakes of the Weathermen to those of Mao, Hitler, and Stalin. While he isn’t wrong, it’s obviously a foolish comparison. These men had millions of followers and unfortunately had it within their power to really change the world. The Weathermen were the fringe of the fringe; even Bill Ayers admits as much when he talks about his disappointment that the Days of Rage only managed to draw a few hundred people. They weren’t so much the revolutionary vanguard as they were a political cult. In truth they were much closer to McVeigh and Manson (whom Dorn infamously saluted as a fellow revolutionary, something the filmmakers apparently decided to skip over).

It’s these sorts of moments that are fascinating, when the truth seeps through the bullshit and the Weathermen actually confront some of their failures. Unfortunately they’re all too rare. Too often the interviewees drift into nostalgic reflection about what it meant to be outlaws in the ’60s. Sometimes they express regret, but only in the vaguest of terms, before returning to their tired line about how they “had to do something.” But what did they do? Blow up some office buildings, smash a few windows, get a few people killed. If they knew the revolution wasn’t going to happen, as they must have, then why all the destruction? After all one of the tragedies of Vietnam was that it was continued long after anyone believed in it.

Perhaps the Weathermen would have been better off simply boycotting Chilean wine, or maybe they could have followed Duane Allman’s advice and just eaten a peach for peace. Of course the fact that most of the members of the Weather Underground haven't reassessed their actions is neither surprising, nor is it necessarily a knock on the film, but the filmmakers have some journalistic responsibility to raise these questions with their subjects. Instead they seem willing to passively accept such thin, opaque rationale.

—Edward Rholes


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