Because I was born in 1970, images from the 1960s have the aura of history for me. I don’t remember the Civil Rights Movement or Vietnam, so I find representations of that era to be fascinating. When I taught freshman composition at the University of Illinois, I often showed Mark Kitchell’s 1990 documentary, Berkeley in the ‘60s, in order to introduce the research project, in which the class would write research papers on specific historical events from a specific decade. When I watched this film, I found myself unself-consciously drawn to charismatic leaders of the Free Speech Movement, such as Mario Savio, who spoke so passionately about his opposition to the war in Vietnam.
With that in mind, I watched Sam Green and Bill Siegel’s documentary, The Weather Underground (IMDB), tonight. The film focuses on the radical left-wing political group that bombed several government buildings, including the US Capital, in the late 1960s and ‘70s. It’s a film that is impossible to watch without acknowledging one’s political investments, and in fact Roger Ebert’s review of the film verges on being only a reflection on his politics (he mentions that he still has his SDS card signed by Tom Hayden).
I knew a little about the Weathermen, but I didn’t have a clear sense of their long history. The documentary certainly provides that, although I’d imagine that one aspect of their experience is probably unrepresentable: after watching this film, I’m not sure that I have any sense of what it must have been like to be separated from family and friends for years, unable to communicate except perhaps in elliptical ways. One member of the group comments that after the early 70s they became “invisible,” unrecognized by old friends, and unable for the most part to return to familiar haunts. I’m not sure how anyone represents that, though.
The documentary uses interviews with former members of the Weather Underground, undercover FBI officers, and former SDS president and Weathermen opponent, Todd Gitlin, to trace the history of the Weathermen, from their formation at the 1969 Students for a Democratic Society conference through the late seventies when the group essentially disbanded (after Jimmy Carter’s amnesty for draft dodgers), with many members turning themselves in. Like the leaders of the Free Speech Movement (such as Savio), many of the Weathermen were incredibly charismatic, their press appearances carefully constructed to convey their passionate beliefs, and archived footage of Bernadette Dohrn, Bill Ayers, Mark Rudd, Naomi Jaffe and Mr. Flanagan effectively conveys the idea that they were “sexy criminals” as Elvis Mitchell puts it (by the way, what must it be like to be surfing the Internet and find yourself described as a sexy criminal?). Several times during the course of the documentary, Dohrn and Ayers (who are still a couple), particularly, are described as a real-life Bonnie and Clyde, and the footage certainly captures that spirit of rebellion that I find so enticing, and the film shows to some extent how carefully the group managed their image.
The interview format, mixed with news footage and home movie footage (often in Super-8), allows for a reflective format, in which many of the Weather Underground find themselves looking back at their actions with mixed emotions. In one of the more compelling interview sequences, Brian Flanagan, who now owns a bar, reflects that “When you feel you have right on your side, you can do some pretty horrific things.” Others, including Mark Rudd, now a community college teacher, also express mixed emotions about their actions, but some members of the group show less remorse. Still, there’s a great deal of nostalgia among many of the group’s members, a nostalgia for the moment of possibility represented by the volatility of the late 1960s.
As the indieWIRE reviewer suggests, the film’s format, at least on a formal level, is relatively orthodox. However, this approach masks the extent to which members of the Weather Underground are presented sympathetically. I would have liked to see interviews with other liberal or left opponents of the Weathermen besides Todd Gitlin. It’s not that I’m necessarily suspicious of Gitlin, but because of his involvement in SDS, it’s hard to shake his personal investment in that history (and I’m not suggesting that anyone could be objective, but another point-of-view from the outside could have been helpful). The roughness of the footage does add to the intensity of the film as well.
Of course the film cannot be separated from its contemporary context, and I think that’s what makes this documentary so successful. Brian Flanagan, in particular, clearly feels some degree of remorse for his actions, comparing them to the Oklahoma City bombing. And, implicitly at least, the film raises questions about the current opposition to the war in Iraq and (to some extent) the resistance to globalization, about what can be said, about what form that opposition takes.