WEATHER UNDERGROUND, THE
(director/writer/producer: Sam Green/ Bill Siegel; cinematographers: Andy Black/Federico Salsano; editors: Dawn Logsdon/Sam Green; music: Dave Cerf and Amy Domingues; cast: Lili Taylor and Pamela Z (narrators), Naomi Jaffe, Kathleen Cleaver, Mark Rudd, Bernadine Dohrn, Brian Flanagan, David Gilbert, Bill Ayers, Laura Whitehorn, Todd Gitlin, Don Strickland; Runtime: 92; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Carrie Lozano and Marc Smolowitz; Shadow Distribution; 2002)
“Failed to ask one interesting or tough question.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
A conventional talking head documentary filled with strangely gripping street shots of rundown neighborhoods and newsreels highlighting some of the American street protests and war scenes in Vietnam. It is engrossingly nostalgic about the Weathermen, a radical fringe group of SDS (Students for a Democratic Society), who seem hardly worthy of being filmed in such a sympathetic manner. The group was named after Bob Dylan’s catchy lyrics in Subterranean Homesick Blues, “you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.” They became the Weather Underground movement of the late 60s and through the 70s, who were forced to go underground as the FBI started to take them as a serious danger and were on their trail but failed to capture them. The group was at first peacefully protesting the Vietnam War, but became frustrated because they couldn’t stop the war and after Nixon’s election in 1968 used violent means to bring about the overthrow of the American government. They split from their parent SDS group in 1969, and thought because they were right about the unjust war they were justified in using any means to stop it. There are numerous bombings attributed to them, including the men’s room at the Pentagon, the U.S. Capitol, NYPD headquarters and the Queens courthouse. All of these bombings had no fatalities, which they were careful to avert after the accidental Greenwich Village townhouse bombing in which their own Diana Oughton, Terry Robbins and Ted Gold died. The intended target was a non-com military dance at Fort Dix, N.J.. This intended violence served as a rude awakening that they had lost favor even among their fellow peace activists and were out there pretty much on their own.
These self-hating whites were well-educated as children of the privileged, who wanted to be part of a world revolution that had no privileged classes. They openly explored drugs and free-love, as they are shown as youths in all their glory (mostly mugging for the cameras which they could do as well as any Hollywood celeb). They are also currently shown as humorless middle-aged survivors looking back at their past as smug as ever. The only thing interesting that the young softball filmmaker questioners, Sam Green and Bill Siegel, get out of those involved in the movement — Mark Rudd, Bernadine Dohrn, Brian Flanagan, David Gilbert, Bill Ayers, Laura Whitehorn and Naomi Jaffe — is the same arrogance and self-righteous pose as in their wild youth. They are presented in a heroic light as sexy Bonnie and Clyde pop star outlaw types and are further admired because their convictions are real and still to this day remain passionate. But how can one forget that Hitler, Stalin, and Mao’s convictions were also real and they had no trouble massacring innocents to get their program, just as the Weather Underground were willing to do. Meaning one’s unswerving convictions do not necessarily mean that what you say and do is right.
The hapless Weather Underground crew remind me so much of the fundamentalist Islamic terrorists who are so full of themselves and never question their self-righteous actions. There seems to be no real contrition or understanding that they were of no help to the peace movement –in fact, they were a hindrance— and the grandiose role they envisioned for themselves just never was realized. They were unimportant and are still unimportant in their role in the peace movement, except for the media and the right-wing to use them to discredit the peace movement. I remember seeing them all bugged-eyed and riled up with anger at the anti-war demonstrations I attended, where I was involved with the Artists and Writers Against the War. I never could come to terms with the Weathermen as anything but loud-mouthed publicity seekers, moral cowards, and rigid anal types you could not reason with. They were for the most part obnoxious juveniles who happened to be right that the war must stop. But it seems unfair to still give them props for their activism when it was the non-violent demonstrators who were the real heroes who tried to heal the wounds of this divided country in its longest and most unpopular war.
This documentary never gets to how these bright kids blew it and were so mistaken in their actions, though an attempt is made by Todd Gitlin (now a journalism professor at Columbia), the SDS president in favor of peaceful protests, before his 100,000 strong organization was hijacked by the Weathermen in a rigged 1969 convention and taken on a violent ride.
The old Weathermen crawled out of their hiding places little by little and started giving themselves up to the government when the war ended in 1975, as they realized their group had no more purpose to exist. But for the next 5 years the ones still out there continued their bombings, something the filmmakers do not question. Interestingly enough most served no jail time because the FBI mishandled their search in an unconstitutional way as they planted false evidence to discredit them through a secret operation known as “CoIntelPro.” One of the Weathermen, David Gilbert, is still in prison serving a life sentence for his part in the fatal 1981 Brinks robbery. The filmmakers never even bring this subject up, so we are still in the dark about what that was all about.
The Weathermen’s smug morality is still there as they seemed to have learned little from their past follies, which the filmmakers still view in their slanted perspective as mostly youthful rebellion, though some mumble half-hearted regrets and seem to be haunted in some odd way by all those events and the attention they received from the media. Yet the film offers no analysis of what went wrong and lets them ramble on leaving their many bombing missions unexplained. They are unscathed as far as their many ill-conceived alliances, such as with the Manson Family. They got a free pass in this documentary and they still come out looking like arrogant jerks filled with misplaced hatred for their families or of others not part of their outlaw mentality. Naomi Jaffe states she wouldn’t have missed the revolution for anything and the only thing she would do different is be a better revolutionist. Brian Flanagan is currently a NYC bar owner and blames his violent activities on the war by saying “I think the Vietnam War made us all a little crazy.” He goes on to excuse his role in the bombings by further saying “When you feel you have right on your side, you can do some horrific things.” The inflexible lawyer Bernadine Dohrn, the national secretary of the organization, now head of a program for juvenile justice at Northwestern University, makes no apologies for her violent stand and her comment that Amerika is “the most violent society that has ever existed.” Bill Ayers, currently married to Dohrn, carries along a baseball bat as he revisits the Chi town area he previously vandalized and is unrepentant as he talks about his part in the infamous four day riot downtown known as the “Days of Rage.” The crazed group attacked the wealthy business area of the establishment because they wanted to bring the war home. Their leftist revolutionary rage is best described as infantile. Even their Black Panther allies considered them muddled in their approach and inept in leading their own troops on a mission where they not only couldn’t win but would be slaughtered. Chicago Black Panther leader Fred Hampton ridiculed them for being “Custeristic.” Off course, he was ironically soon to die in his bed in a controversial shootout with the police while they still remain standing. The gray haired and overweight Mark Rudd, the leader of the demonstration at Columbia and one of the more celebrated Weathermen, is currently a math teacher at a New Mexico community college, who comments that his students think he’s from another planet. Rudd is perplexed about what to do with the info he knows about how the government operates. Though he admits to past mistakes, he muses that he doesn’t know how to change the government that still bothers him by their continued evil actions. He seems like he’s still walking around in a fog.
In the end, this documentary failed to ask one interesting or tough question and failed to uncover anything about this misguided group that we didn’t already know. Though the documentary was well put together and was not misleading, it somehow never got to what made these impatient-for-change advantaged kids become such debased militant rebels. Aside from seeing the terrible newsreel horrors from Vietnam and all the institutional violence by our government, there was not much else that left a lasting impression.
REVIEWED ON 11/9/2003 GRADE: C+