Judge Paul Corupe's interest in amateur meteorology had little bearing on his review of this documentary on the '60s violent protesters.
"Hello. I'm going to read a declaration of a state of war. Within the next 14 days we will attack a symbol of American injustice."—Bernadine Dohrn
Admired by the youth as modern day Robin Hoods and tracked by the FBI as dangerous terrorists, the Weathermen were a splinter group from the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) that took form in the early 1970s. Frustrated that mass demonstrations over the Vietnam War and civil rights were being ignored by an unresponsive government, the Weathermen decided to forgo peaceful protest and dedicate themselves to the violent overthrow of U.S. imperialism. They later changed their name to the "Weather Underground" after the murder of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton made them fear for their own lives and forced them to go into hiding. Comprised of just a small group of revolutionaries, the Weather Underground tried to "bring the war home" with at least 25 bombings of key targets in the U.S., including the Capitol Building and the Pentagon.
Facts of the Case
Sam Green's powerful film is edited together from archive footage and modern interviews with members of the SDS, the FBI, and the Weather Underground themselves, including Bernadine Dohrn, Mark Rudd, Brian Flanagan, David Gilbert, and Bill Ayers. The film begins with the creation of the group and an analysis of how the enthusiastic idealism of the hippies turned into a bad trip with the violent flare-up at Altamont, Charles Manson, and the escalation of Vietnam. The activities and philosophies of The Weathermen are traced as they go underground and become clandestine celebrities of the revolution. The fall of the Weather Underground is as anticlimactic as it was in real life, a combined effort of covert FBI counterintelligence forces and changing priorities for the individual members.
The Weather Underground would make an excellent companion piece to The Fog of War, the film that this documentary lost to at the 2004 Academy Awards. Technically captivating and painstakingly researched, The Weather Underground is an always engaging film that tries to offer an unbiased chronicle of the controversial activists who actually declared war on America in response to their own country's militaristic actions both at home and abroad.
It's important to note that the Weather Underground were radicals who had protested non-violently in the past, but felt that the democratic process had failed them by not recognizing their objections. They took up violence as a last resort to call attention to the murder of the Vietnamese people (as well as charismatic civil rights leaders) under the motto of "bring the war home." Because the slaughter of the Vietnamese populace was happening out of sight and out of mind, the group felt that confronting Americans with perceptible violence would force them to face up to the issue. The Weather Underground only desired to damage property in this respect, and their bombings were painstakingly planned to avoid killing or hurting innocent bystanders.
I don't think I'm giving away too much if I reveal that the Weather Underground failed in their goal to overthrow the U.S. government. One member explains that by 1973, campus activists no longer cared about the group's activities. Another wisely notes that "the American people are taught that violence is the product of a criminal or sick mind." The Weather Underground never seemed able to deliver their message properly, which made them appear to be vandals committing "violence for violence's sake," as one newscaster put it. They didn't lack for trying though, appearing in Emile de Antonio's 1976 documentary Underground, and releasing regular audio communiqués explaining their position. These were usually tossed aside by the media in favor of more sensationalistic stories, like the Weathermen's drug intake and free approach to sex.
One of the most fascinating parts of the film is the discussion of COINTELPRO, a secret FBI faction whose purpose was to destroy radical groups like the Black Panthers and the Weather Underground with a campaign of surveillance, disinformation, and violence. Although by and large successful, when the Weather Underground resurfaced and surrendered themselves to police, they were cleared of all charges due to the blatantly illegal techniques COINTELPRO employed.
What emerges from the film is not so much a legitimization of the Weather Underground's illegal tactics, but a brutally honest look at democracy. The filmmakers have put together a startlingly even-handed account that doesn't shy away from the hard questions or the mistakes the Weather Underground committed. Much is made of the Days of Rage, a Weather Underground-led four-day rampage of destruction that few others, including the SDS and the Black Panthers, considered revolutionary. Modern day interviews with SDS founder Todd Gitlin show he is still bitter towards the group, whose ideologies he compares both to Stalin and kindergartners. But perhaps the most damning evidence against the Weather Underground comes from many of its own members, whose memories are often tempered with a heavy dose of guilt and regret.
I should also note that The Weather Underground contains extremely graphic footage and stills from the Vietnam War as well as grisly crime scene photos of American revolutionaries Fred Hampton and Soledad Brother George Jackson. The violence is absolutely essential to understand how such strong political convictions could arise at the time.
Docurama's The Weather Underground features a nice full frame transfer. The quality of the archival footage in this film varies greatly, but for the most part it looks better than it should. All of the old 8mm films from the 1960s and 1970s are surely one of the drawing points of the film, and those wanting to see these excerpts generally won't be disappointed. Pixelization sometimes pops up in the newly recorded interviews, but it isn't terribly distracting. Sound quality is also good, with a full rich tone to this stereo mix. The soundtrack also fares well, thankfully eschewing the now-tired 1960s protest music for stark soundscape pieces contributed by artists including Aphex Twin and Ian MacKaye of Fugazi.
There are plenty of supplemental extras presented, which do a great job in expanding the information presented in the film. A brief, scratchy excerpt from Antonio's Underground is here, as are two original audio communiqués, although these are badly distorted and barely intelligible. Director Sam Green's commentary is mildly interesting, talking about how the project came about and the way it was actually put together, as well as answering commonly asked questions about the film. A second commentary by ex-Weather Underground members Bernadine Dohrn and Bill Ayers is a bit more compelling. They compare the Vietnam conflict with the present situation in Iraq, and try to give additional context to some of the scenes. They are also critical of certain parts of the film, which is a nice change from many commentary tracks I've listened to. The text-based "filmmaker biographies" and "filmmaker's statement" also serve to give the film a bit of a framework.
The final feature is the icing on the cake, an unexpurgated version of the interview with David Gilbert. After leaving the Weather Underground, Gilbert was involved with another revolutionary civil rights group, and was arrested when an armed robbery meant to help fund the group went wrong. Speaking from prison where he is serving a 75-year sentence, Gilbert is a well-spoken, intelligent man who has had much more time to reflect on his life, revolutionary politics, and the role of the Weather Underground. This extra should not be skipped.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Watching this film three times over the course of a few days in order to check out the commentaries for this review, I was overcome with a strong sense of malaise. The Weather Underground is a very depressing documentary! This isn't necessarily a criticism, since the film only mirrors the disheartening turn of events that really happened, but this is probably not something you will want to watch over and over again.
Giving a forum to the most misunderstood fringe movement of the 1970s, The Weather Underground is a vital look at the limits of democratic protest that is much more powerful and thought provoking than any of Michael Moore's films. As both a political commentary and a deeply personal look at the people that were involved, this is a truly must-see documentary.
Despite underlying currents of melancholy, the audience should experience an 85% chance of enjoyment, with a conversation front moving in directly after viewing. The Weather Underground is not guilty.
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