Doc of the Day: The Weather Underground Review - Dan Schindel

Doc of the Day: The Weather Underground

Posted in Days of Docs by - July 09, 2012

They bombed the seventies. Learn how and why.

Dir. Sam Green & Bill Siegel, 2002, 90 min

The Weather Underground is a difficult movie, and I imagine that it probably felt even more difficult coming out right after 9/11. It opens up an ugly world, one where no one holds the moral high ground, where there might not even be a moral high ground. And in an environment like that, what is the ethical thing to do? When your government oppresses people, what is the proper response? What happens if you choose to resist, but mere resistance isn’t enough? Where does violence become acceptable? We tacitly sanction the police and  military to use violence – is that even right? This is a movie to spark a roiling conflict, whether internal or in voiced debate.

As the sixties turned into the seventies, peaceful resistance seemed increasingly ineffectual in response to the atrocities committed by the US government. After the Students for a Democratic Society fell apart, “The Weathermen” was one of the splinter groups that formed out of its remains. Working on the idea that not acting against violence is itself a form of violence, they started a campaign of bombing federal property that lasted from the late sixties through the mid-seventies. The film features several prominent members of the organization, including Bill Ayres, Bernadine Dohrn, Mark Rudd, and David Gilbert. They, along with other former leftist agitators, are our guides through this time.

This isn’t really a story about the Weather Underground. It’s about the seventies themselves, a time when optimism seemed to die an ugly death. It was the era of Watergate, Vietnam, mass unemployment, deteriorating cities, and government suppression of dissent. What the movie does masterfully is make it clear how resorting to what could be considered terrorism* seemed like the most morally rational thing to do at the time. But it also doesn’t let these people off the hook for  what they did. Some of them are remorseful, some stand by their past actions, and some have no idea what to think. And that last feeling seems to pervade the movie. It’s such an insane world that what is and isn’t a good act blurs together. Up is left, black is green.

And these people weren’t looking to change the system – they wanted to upend the table, wipe the game board clean and begin a new society. They were Communists, collectivists, and other -ists that scare a lot of people. And their desire seems not to come from true political philosophy but from youthful idealism. They believed they could make a new world. Everyone does at that age; I feel that way now. But not everyone goes so far in acting out that ambition. If anything, the Weather Underground was the culmination of a weird domino effect, as the members kept spurring each other on to escalate their methods.

The Weather Underground is a chronicle of conviction turned to action turned to extremism turned to disillusionment. The WUO fell apart after the end of the war in Vietnam. In a sad/sick/hilarious twist, most of them were able to peacefully “retire” despite their criminal records, since the grand majority of the FBI’s evidence against them was obtained through illegal means. Like I said: no moral high ground here whatsoever. We live in times not really all that different from the seventies, although we’re spectacularly better at pretending things aren’t as bad as they are. No similar group has risen up to fill the WUO’s function as radicals spurring change in society. I don’t know if that’s a good or bad sign.

*Honestly? I don’t consider it terrorism. The only people who were ever killed by the WUO’s actions were three of their own, who were blown up putting together a bomb.

This post was written by
Dan Schindel is a writer and editor. He lives and works in Los Angeles.
%d bloggers like this: