The Weather Underground (2003)

Chris Elliot

Gaining resonance with today's 'war on terror,' The Weather Underground, recalls another unsettled social scene, during another unsettled period.

The Weather Underground

Director: Bill Siegel
Cast: Bernadine Dohrn, Bill Ayers, Mark Rudd, Todd Gitlin, Brian Flanagan, Don Strickland, Lili Taylor, Laura Whitehorn, Kathleen Cleaver
MPAA rating: Not Rated
Studio: Shadow Distribution
Display Artist: Sam Green, Bill Siegel
First date: 2003
US DVD Release Date: 2004-05-25
With the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark -- that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.
-- Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

All that seemed clear was that at some point we had aborted ourselves and butchered the job.
-- Joan Didion, Slouching Towards Bethlehem

Terrorism is premised on a proto-theological ideology. Its zealousness trades gray areas for the clarity of "the Movement," be it Marxism, Islamofascism, or the "rule of law." The fervor of its followers lays the groundwork for suicide bombings and torture at Abu Ghraib.

Gaining resonance with today's "war on terror," Sam Green and Bill Siegel's documentary, The Weather Underground, recalls another unsettled social scene, during another unsettled period, the U.S. during the late 1960s and the 1970s. Working in tightly constructed cells, dispersed around the country, the Weathermen employed strategically targeted violence in an effort, in their words, to overthrow the U.S. government.

Green and Siegel's film combines period footage and present-day interviews with a variety of members of the Weather Underground, in order to plot their pre-Weather days within the Students for Democratic Society (SDS), their subsequent disaffection and militancy, and the history of bombings and political pronouncements that characterized their activities in the '70s, managing to elude the FBI for over a decade. Rather than focusing on their most notorious exploits -- bombing the Capitol Building, busting Timothy Leary out of jail -- the film is concerned with tensions between their political goals and their private lives as fugitives. As Bernadine Dorn puts it, "Underground is a state of information control, rather than a place."

As Dohrn, Bill Ayers, Mark Rudd, and others recount that period in their lives, it's obvious they haven't come to terms with their actions (particularly their decision to enter into active militancy) or what can only be considered the failure of their mission. Attempting to overthrow a government through violent means taking on not only responsibility for your own actions, but also for the lives of others living under that government. This burden is made even heavier when you consider, as Rudd candidly says, "All Americans [to be] legitimate targets."

For a movement ostensibly seeking social justice and the liberation of the oppressed (interviewees reference their solidarity with the Black Panthers, for example), this willingness to accept what the military would term "collateral damage" complicates the Weather Underground's aims. This unavoidable contradiction affects most groups bent on social transformation through violence. Isolated and increasingly opposed by radical, non-violent groups, the Weather Underground become less influential towards the end of the late '70s.

The film doesn't offer any easy conclusions regarding the Weather Underground's motives, means to their ends or present-day reminiscences. In this respect and especially post-9/11, the documentary refreshingly resists charges of "right" or "wrong." It doesn't assign blame or argue in support of the Weather Underground's actions. Instead, it alternates between past and present, providing a kind of dispassionate and very smart reconsideration of a period. The decade known as "the 1970s" -- post-Altamont, post-Manson, in the final throes and aftermath of the Vietnam War -- yet hangs between the utopian possibilities of the hippie and the capitalist ethos of the 1980s. Like other transitional periods, it might best be characterized by moral and ethical opacity.

As Brian Flanagan muses, "The Vietnam Ware made us crazy... when you feel you have right on your side, you can do some horrific things." This mixture of "insanity" and moral righteousness is, of course, ideal for producing movements that seem at once totally reasonable (fight oppression) and incoherent (violence will produce a non-violent state). The sporadic nature of the Weathermen's violence only added to the movement's reputation for incoherence.

As The Weather Underground concludes, Rudd observes, "Violence didn't work." The reality is that, while it didn't effect transformation, the Weather Underground's episodic bombings became a symbol of a zeitgeist, a maelstrom of contradiction. Joan Didion depicted the late '60s peace movement in San Francisco as if lost, in search of moral clarity or collective identity. Similarly, the Weathermen were unable to fid a unified, sustainable center and community.

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