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The Weather Underground

The Weather Underground
2002 / Color / 1:37 flat full frame / 92 min. / Street Date May 25, 2004 / 24.95
Narrator Lili Taylor, Pamela Z
Cinematography Andy Black, Federico Salsano
Film Editor Sam Green, Dawn Logsdon
Music Dave Cerf, Amy Domingues
Produced by Christian Ettinger, Sam Green, Mary Harron, Carrie Lozano, Sue Ellen McCann, Bill Siegel, Marc Smolowitz
Directed by Sam Green, Bill Siegel

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

"We are all outlaws in the eyes of America ...
Everything they say we are, we are ...
And we are very proud of ourselves."

- The Jefferson Airplane

"You wanna change the world? Take the gun!"
- Severn Darden to James Coburn in The President's Analyst

This Oscar nominee is a genuinely shocking docu about The Weathermen, the violent revolutionaries that came out of the antiwar movement of the late 1960s. They participated in major bombings of public and private buildings and delivered scathing audio communiques declaring that the revolution was underway.

Featuring impressive interviews with members today, the docu can't help but show just how wrong almost everything they said and did was. But even if their thinking seems way off base these rebels still believe fervently in their cause and their dedication is bona fide. The Weather Underground tells their story from the inside out and is an excellent show.

I think I first became aware of the radical underground through satires in the National Lampoon Magazine. While the Vietnam War raged the magazine seemed the logical successor to Mad Magazine in the "deflate America" sweepstakes. When hardcore revolutionaries were pictured, they were always sharp-tonged ideologues threatening to commence a war in the streets.

The Weather Underground shows that judgment to be more or less true. The docu profiles the growth of the anti-war movement and in particular the steering of the liberal but not radical Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) toward more radical and confrontational thinking. Following the lead of the Black Panthers, a cadre within the SDS determined that a coalition of anti-war, anti-Nixon, anti-corporate revolutionaries would be welcomed by working Americans and that revolution was imminent.

My parents' generation was resolute in the belief that protesting youth were misguided by the artificial environment of U.S. campus life. The kids of the affluent middle class raised after WW2 had little experience with harsh realities and took the idealism and radical political science learned at America's Universities to destructive extremes.

Well, my parents were wrong about the war and several other issues, but they were right when it came to the subject of revolution. Unlike other countries the U.S. had a huge middle class with an aggregate wealth and lifestyle that was the envy of privileged classes elsewhere. For all its ills America was still a great country with a beautiful system that could indeed right some of its wrongs. Nobody here wanted equality and revolutionary justice; they wanted a better car and a bigger place to live, a bigger piece of the pie.

The Weathermen were practical idealists in that they weren't content to hold feel-good Peace rallies that could be ignored by the media while the criminals in Washington continued their atrocious war in Vietnam. They took over the SDS practically by force - nothing democratic about that. As the FBI focused its interest on them, they eventually had to be more secretive.

Interestingly, the Weathermen express guilt over that fact that the admired Panthers took all the heat - including sanctioned murders by the police and FBI - while they as "nice white kids" were for the most part spared direct violence. The fact that their money and cleverness allowed them to hide helped a lot, too. Thinking that America was a tinderbox and that they would be the spark to send it all up in flames, they commenced bombings directed at buildings symbolizing imperialist oppression. At first they intended to slaughter civilians under the warped thinking that anybody not fighting against the government was their enemy. That kind of thinking can only be attributed to madness and zealotry, a radical elitism that believed they were the chosen spearhead that would inspire a massive uprising against Nixon's White House.

After some amateur bombmaking resulted in killing a couple of Weathermen in their NYC townhouse (the aftermath seen by Dustin Hoffman in a newsfilm blip) they backed off and hit only unoccupied buildings, giving enough warning time to evacuate night staff and the like. What this accomplished besides polarizing America, I don't know. The peaceful protests and common sense were what turned American opinion against the war, while the Weathermen did permanent damage to the cause of liberal activism. A large section of the country now equates "political activism" with "radical extremism."

As soon as they turned to violence the Weathermen became the target of every media outlet and conservative speaker. Every legitimate protest and demonstration was associated with violence, and outrages like Kent State were routinely blamed on the student victims. Nixon was able to lump together every opposition voice and label it as a Hanoi-influenced Communist conspiracy. I think the Weather Underground helped get him reelected in 1972.

What's worse, the Weather Underground was used as an excuse (along with race riots) to pump huge amounts of money into law enforcement and police, making local cops into paramilitary armies equipped with the battle gear and weapons suited to an occupying army. The noxiously false "War on Drugs" took up the slack when the radicals disbanded after Vietnam.

The Weather Underground shows this all from the inside out, contrasting newsfilm of the committed revolutionaries of 1970 with their calm but still-idealistic faces today, when America post- 9/11 is far more of a police state and far less tolerant of political opposition. Nixon was liberal compared to the present administration, and a mouthy gadfly like Michael Moore is shunned as an opportunist. This isn't wild editorializing; The Weather Underground is about how some idealistic activists refused to be marginalized and used violence to force their message home. It didn't work. Moore is a pain in the neck, but his opinions are definitely not being suppressed.

The most jaw-dropping part of The Weather Underground is the wrapup in which we find out what happened to the eight or so featured interviewees. As it turns out, the methods used by the FBI and police to hunt the radicals down were so illegal that the government quietly declined to prosecute most of them. They caused millions of dollars' worth of damage and terrorized America for over two years but weren't brought to trial because any prosecution would publicize the activities of America's "secret police." Some Weathermen were captured and others surrrendered themselves. One hilariously ironic reason for coming back was that raising children underground was just impossible - you know, it's really tough to live a middle-class life when you're dedicated to the overthrow of society. Several of these "dangerous enemies of America" now hold prestigious teaching jobs.  1

The makers of The Weather Underground avoid the trendy pitfalls of some docus about the anti-war movement. No top-40 "revolution" rock anthems by Crosby Stills Nash & Young or The Jefferson Airplane are played to make us feel nostalgic for the days of radical-chic. The filmmakers don't make a sentimental case for its subjects, most of whom still view themselves as righteous in their actions. Finding anybody committed to anything that isn't 100% self-serving is rare these days, but that unfortunately doesn't make the Weathermen seem any more noble.

The show is absorbing and free of dogma. Believe me, conservatives watching this won't feel they're being baited and liberals won't think the filmmakers are playing into their good graces. It's a fine, informative show.

DocuRama's The Weather Underground presents last year's Academy Award nominee in fine shape with a number of absorbing extras. The flat full-frame transfer is excellent, and the sound clear.

A commentary from the key Weathermen couple Bernadine Dohrn and Bill Ayers shows that they haven't recanted. They're still inflamed by the same ideas and tell their story from the sobering position of revolutionaries who have had thirty years to wonder about the wisdom of their commitment - after all, when they went violent they all thought they'd be dead in a matter of months. Filmmaker Sam Green tells his story of how the film came to be. The Weather Underground was almost completely forgotten when he and Bill Siegel seriously took up the project in the 1990s, and both of them grew up after the key events of the story. The show finally came together because of 9/11, when opposition to basic U.S. policies suddenly became a real possibility again.

In a written "filmmaker statement" presented as an extra the directors state their desire to present untainted facts but clearly come off as biased in favor of the radicals. It's to their credit that their movie doesn't show it.

There are two docu excerpts. One is from Emile de Antonio's Underground, itself an outlaw picture that interviewed fugitive Weathermen in the middle 1970s. None of them can be recognized, but the camera shoots into a mirror that shows the whole crew, including cameraman Haskell Wexler.

The other is a video interview with ex-Weatherman David Gilbert, who is serving an unbreakable life sentence for armed robbery and murder. Instead of quitting he joined a Black revolutionary group that fumbled a violent bank robbery and killed some policemen. Gilbert is a persuasive and likeable man who rattles off his personal history, the failings of the Weathermen (his take on the foolish ideology behind the group sex thing is amusing) and his own present predicament. Just when we're sure he's going to be contrite, he instead gives a rational argument that he shouldn't be locked away forever while a mass murderer like Henry Kissinger is never brought to account for his crimes. Depending on one's view, Gilbert either makes sense or is completely deluded.

The final extras are two uncut audio "communiques" released by the group proudly declaring their opposition to the imperialist pigs and capitalist enemies of freedom. They're breathtaking, audacious and must have opened some eyes at the FBI. Under today's present Patriot Act they'd be called proof of direct ties to Osama Bin Laden. But the communiques are almost too misguided to be real - they're as foolish-sounding as the satires in the National Lampoon.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Weather Underground rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Commentary from Former Weathermen Bernadine Dohrn and Bill Ayres, filmmaker commentary, Original Weathermen audio communiques, Bonus film on former weatherman David Gilbert: A Lifetime of Struggle, excerpt from Emilie de Antonio's film Underground, Filmmaker statement.
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 22, 2004


1. Timing is everything on this. Most of these radicals hadn't actually been involved in any crimes involving the loss of life. Another woman radical decided that it was a good time to come forward and be forgiven in 2001 - just before 9-11 let loose the dogs of "national security." Her case wasn't going well when all mention of her just disappeared from the papers.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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