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The War at Home

The War at Home
First Run Features
B&W & Color
1:37 flat full frame
100 min.
Street Date December 16, 2003

Produced and Directed by
Barry Alexander Brown
and Glenn Silber

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Much better than 'just another docu about the anti-war movement', The War at Home is a terrific, detailed look at ten years of activism in one specific locale, The University of Wisconsin. With tons of newsfilm, documentation and interviews with activists (one the Mayor of Madison at the time of the filming, 1978) this is every bit as engaging and thought-provoking as the much later, much bigger-scaled Berkeley in the 60s. But it's equally compelling. It was nominated for an Oscar for best documentary feature.

Directors Barry Alexander Brown and Glenn Silber tell their story straight. Everybody expects Berkeley to be a 'hotbed of radicals,' but the advantage of Madison, Wisconsin is that it is as mainstream as a middle-of-the-road American city can get. Throughout the newsfilm testimony we see housewives, local businessmen, and craggy old veterans speaking out, sometimes on behalf of the protesting student activists. Unlike California, with Ronald Reagan making political capital out of turning the troops and cops loose on the UC campuses, the Wisconsin politicians take things in stride and avoid theatricality or games-playing. On some issues, the police chief of Madison comes off as wholly sympathetic.

What The War at Home does best is show why campus protest turned violent. The demonstrators didn't stop at showing their opinions, especially when both the media and the politicians in power (Johnson, Nixon) cynically ignored or demonized them. The gauntlet went down when thousands were willing to occupy campus buildings. Then came the pride of the elected officials, who yielded to pressure to 'teach the traitorous protesters a lesson.' As soon as the police were sent in, it became the war at home of the title. The violence definitely started with police riots, official violence that now had to be justified. Hence the stern-faced law officials coming on camera to talk of 'instigators from out of town' and showing weapons taken from the students 'who attacked police.'

In the beginning we see the exact opposite happen, and soon there are plenty of incidents where the police use any pretext to, well, riot against block parties and any other student gathering. Although not as blatantly militaristic as what happened in California, as soon as order breaks down, the issue simply becomes 'who is in control?'

The students trying to organize new political parties were often dilletantes, and The War at Home doesn't try to hide this. They used whatever publicity wedges as were available, such as attacking an on-campus US Army mathematics building because it was a war-related enterprise that shouldn't be on campus. As the students were completely divided among themselves (the docu gives fair time to counter-protests) and the media was generally against them, the positive aspects of the anti-war movement were quick to evaporate. For every outcry against police riots in Chicago, there were five statements condeming student protest as "traitorous troublemaking from spoiled middle-class brats who were supposed to be studying and staying out of politics."

The docu also takes a hard look at the fervent radicals who believed revolution was around the corner. This comes out in the many interviews from front-rank protest organizers, just a few years after the facts. Most feel this to be their biggest folly - they were idealistic, but sometimes terribly naïve. The general chaos also generated real radicals, like the pair of brothers who bombed that Army Math building, killing a grad student in the bargain. Overnight, every activist on every issue was considered a potential terrorist.

The show clearly shows the bind in which activists found themselves - they were reacting to the political obscenity of war, where liars and knaves in high places found it easy to start and prosecute without punishment, wars that killed hundreds of thousands. But when attempts to stop war crimes and mass murder turned violent and people were hurt, the protesters were the ones to be demonized.

Much of the newsfilm source footage is allowed to play when it can, giving the show a feeling of fairness without editorial manipulation. There are plenty of Vietnam newsclips to remind us that the unrest on our campuses was in direct moral reaction to the war, and not some kind of juvenile hooliganism. Some period music is used on the soundtrack, but with much more restraint than other shows, even the excellent Berkeley in the 60s which sometimes comes off as nostalgia for all of us who lived through the times (and like to fool ourselves that we had the kinds of commitment seen here).

Interviewees include: Activists: Betty Boardman, Quaker; Henry Haslach, Wahid Rashad, Jim Rowen, Evan Stark, students; Paul Soglin, student and mayor of Madison; Jack von Mettenheim, businessman and anti-Hitler student activist; Allen Ginsberg; and Karleton Armstrong, convicted bomber. Also E. Edwin Young, the president of the University of Wisconsin, and Maurice Zeitlin, a professor at the University.

The War at Home's best punches come when it cleanly exposes the lies from Johnson and Nixon about their war aims, the provocations they used to justify invasions, and the total contempt they held for the public and American values.

(voluntary deletion of paragraph where Savant continues this thought, away from the review at hand!)

The anti-war movement was clearly a big mess, but it did help turn public opinion and end the war. The War at Home shows how it all happened in one specific community, and records some compelling history free of hype and posturing.

First Run Features' DVD of The War at Home is a good rendition of this excellent docu. There really aren't any extras, although the bios of the two directors attest to their credentials and continued work as journalists and documentarians.

The original film was technically rough in 1979, and it's still on the iffy side, with color quality only on the so-so level. The transfer is good for a 16mm show from so many sources. The sound mix also reflects the documentary origins - we're here for content, not flash.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The War at Home rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Good
Sound: Good
Supplements: filmmaker bios
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: January 9, 2004

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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