Left to Their Own Devices 

Documentary charts the rise and disbandment of radical 1960s protest group, raising some potent questions about our own post-9/11 society

Documentary charts the rise and disbandment of radical 1960s protest group, raising some potent questions about our own post-9/11 society

The Weather Underground

Dirs.: Sam Green and Bill Siegel

NR, 92 min.

Opening Friday at the

Belcourt Theatre

Violent images of the late ’60s and early ’70s—the napalmings, student riots and police beatings that have come to represent a slightly detached form of media shorthand—take on reinvigorated power and provocative function in The Weather Underground, a timely documentary of the “war brought home” by a clandestine group of radical protesters who briefly eclipsed proponents of civil disobedience with acts that verged on armed revolution. Their story is a terrific and sad one, shrewdly assembled by co-directors Sam Green and Bill Siegel from stock footage and interviews with key players in the group. Surfacing after decades of hiding and, in most cases, subsequent reintegration into quieter livelihoods, the former members express a mixture of haunted reservation and pride alike. Taken together, their fascinating reflections constitute a chapter of activist history that’s largely been buried—not just by the right, but also by the left, which still views them as disruptive, incoherent and (perhaps most annoyingly) extremely commanding in their tactics.

Borrowing their name from Bob Dylan’s crammed-to-rambling “Subterranean Homesick Blues”—“You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows”—the Weather Underground showed up in helmets at the splintering 1969 national convention of Students for a Democratic Society and promptly called for violent overthrow of the government. Fed up with what they perceived as timidity, the Weatherists quickly shanghaied the assembled momentum in a move that Todd Gitlin, a co-founder of the S.D.S. and one of the film’s opposing viewpoints, describes as “institutional piracy”: “They were into youth, exuberance, sex, drugs—they wanted action.” (Gitlin’s likening of their appeal to Bonnie and Clyde’s is fairly unnecessary, given much of the archival footage featuring pin-up-ready Bernadette Dohrn, her raven hair swirling above cheeks flushed with militant pique—there’s even a brief orgy shot in the back of the group’s touring van.)

But the Weather Underground’s agenda would prove to be far more substantial, as the documentary details in its quietly propulsive shadow history of incitement, beginning with the Chicago-based “Days of Rage”—the film shows former member Bill Ayers soberly touring the now gentrified Gold Coast streets where cars were overturned and windows smashed—to a series of carefully orchestrated bombings of dozens of public buildings (including the Pentagon and the Capitol), none of which resulted in any fatalities, much less serious injury. (The one exception to this string of successes was a tragic explosion in the Weatherists’ own West Village townhouse, killing three bomb-makers—a crime that made up the basis of the F.B.I.’s ultimately fruitless charges against them, which were dismissed due to the feds’ own unconstitutional activities.) Along the way, the members still found time to break Timothy Leary out of jail, have children and remain uncaptured until their own voluntary disbandment.

Inspiring though this may be to some—and the filmmakers occasionally make their own viewpoint too clear, as with their glib transition to the Reagan ’80s using a shot of former activist Jane Fonda aerobicizing in spandex—the documentary pricks at uncomfortable places in a post-9/11 climate of real and fuzzy fear. Were the Weatherists terrorists? Or counterterrorists? (They maintained that America’s undeclared war in Asia and on minority groups at home was the actual terrorism.) The line of inquiry is a valuable one, and it’s well explored by the members themselves in a juxtaposed manner that’s appropriately inconclusive (as was their effectiveness): Dohrn defends the acts as “political theater,” while the once telegenic Mark Rudd, now a math teacher in New Mexico, palpably suffers “guilt and shame.” Perhaps the irony of all this is that it’s they, not the government, who are doing the serious grappling. If The Weather Underground moves audiences to do some grappling of their own—and it should—it will be the year’s only film to address the most pressing issue of its day.

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