The Weather Underground, a smart new documentary about this legendary splinter faction, starts off at the fractious 1969 SDS meeting, and its early scenes are full of the belief, which suffused American leftists at the time, that it was just a matter of time before the military-industrial complex came crumbling down. Intellectual Todd Gitlin (one of the original founders of SDS and the most succinct critic of the Weathermen in the film) compares their beliefs to the same ideology used by Stalin and Mao, namely that when revolutionaries like the Weatherman envision a perfect society around the corner, they become convinced that in order to get there, the deaths of "ordinary people" don't count. One of the more charming and down-to-earth ex-Weathermen interviewed for the film, Brian Flanagan, puts it even more simply: "When you feel you have right on your side you can do some pretty horrific things." This paranoid mentality - which the film shows was exacerbated by the FBI's often illegal campaign against groups like the Black Panthers - explains how this group of mostly middle-class whitebread college kids went from carrying signs to building bombs.
One of those bombs went off prematurely at a Greenwich Village townhouse in 1970 - it had been intended for an officers' dance at Ft. Dix, the idea being to "bring the war home" - killing three of the Weathermen. Besides helping to signal an end to the idealism of the 1960s, the event also put a crosshairs on the group, as far as the FBI was concerned, and sent them into hiding, where many would stay until as late as the 1980s. Throughout the early and mid-1970s, the Weathermen carried out a string of bombings of various establishment targets, which they insist in the film were rigorously designed not to kill anyone. Of course, the bombs also failed to elicit much sympathy from the rest of the leftist movement, which was busy splitting off into women's rights and civil rights factions, and tarred radical politics with the stigma of unnecessary violence.
It's a painful documentary in many ways because even though the filmmakers are obviously sympathetic to the politics of the Weathermen, they can't hide the fact that this was essentially a pretty useless little band. Driven by simplistic politics (which Gitlin adroitly describes as being of the "kindergarten" level) and full of their own egos, the Weathermen believed that their radical actions would help drive the country into revolutionary chaos. It's reminiscent of that all-purpose poster boy Che Guevara marching off into Bolivia with his pitifully small group, naively believing the country would simply rise up due to his wonderful example, before being unceremoniously gunned down. But, protected by the privilege of their skin color and background (several of them are now safely-ensconced career academics) in a way that groups like the Panthers never were, the Weathermen survived as the left collapsed around them. Near the conclusion of the documentary is a montage signaling the beginning of the 1980s and the rise of Reagan. The more clueless ex-Weathermen prattle on, one talking about how she'd do it all again in a second, some of the others blithely reliving what they obviously see as their glory days, mostly blind to their part in killing the dream of the 1960s and perhaps even helping bring about the age of Reagan. Thanks, guys.
The new DVD includes two commentaries (one from Green, one from a pair of former Weathermen), a handful of historical communiques from the group, and a short film on David Gilbert.
Party cloudy, chance of thunderstorms.
Run time: 92 mins
In Theaters: Thursday 13th November 2003
Distributed by: Indican Pictures
Production compaines: The Free History Project
Contactmusic.com: 4 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 91%
Fresh: 52 Rotten: 5
IMDB: 7.6 / 10
Also starring: Lili Taylor, Bill Ayers, Kathleen Cleaver, Bernadine Dohrn, Brian Flanagan, Todd Gitlin, Naomi Jaffe, Mark Rudd, David Gilbert, Don Strickland, Laura Whitehorn, Sam Green, Bill Siegel, Carrie Lozano, Marc Smolowitz