The Weather Underground

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.

11 Comments »

  1. mike Said,

    June 23, 2004 @ 9:58 am

    Thanks for the great review, Chuck.

    I share your attraction for images of the 60s and early 70s. I was born in 1964 and have some vague recollections of seeing black and white footage from Vietnam on the 6 o’clock news. I also remember a great deal of talk about POWs when I was 9 or 10–the bracelets and so forth. In fact, not knowing how serious were the issues, several of us in Mrs. Martin’s 3rd grade class, inscribed next to our names on the masking tape strips at the front of our desks (nameplates of a sort)”POM,” Prisoner of Martin. How did we avoid getting into trouble for that one?

    Anyway, I too saw the Weather Underground documentary and was completely absorbed. This is and is not my history. I had no conscious understanding of what was going on at the time it was going on–Vietnam, Civil Rights, etc.–but it must have affected me indirectly, through the way my parents talked about politics (or not at all, which was the case most of the time), through the behavior of my teachers, etc. All the way through my schooling, I pretty much aped the conservative line of my parents and teachers, but when I finally got out of public school and began differentiating myself from those influences, I found 60s radicals a real inspiration.

    Long story short, I really appreciated the Weather Underground documentary and your review of it.

  2. Chris in Boston Said,

    June 23, 2004 @ 10:29 am

    I would have liked to see interviews with other liberal or left opponents of the Weathermen besides Todd Gitlin.

    My biggest complaint about the film is that lost in the ambivalent nostalgia was any sense of the ideas that might have defined the Underground. Yes, their public statements were often vague diatribes against the “system” and the politics of style were as important as the politics of substance. But some version of Marxism was integral to their worldview, but the documentary seems content to stay on the level of Underground style.

    Like you, though, I was impressed by the wealth of archival footage in the documentary and the humanism of the interviews. Now, if someone would only take the occasion to rerelease the Emile de Antonio film cited.

  3. chuck Said,

    June 23, 2004 @ 11:00 am

    Chris, you may know there are excerpts from the de Antonio film on the DVD, but like you, I’d like to see the whole thing. I think you’re right about the lack of a clear sense of the group’s politics. The filmmakers seemed to be a little seduced by the Bonnie and Clyde personas of the group’s leaders. I’d say some of the information about their politics is communicated fairly effectively through the images of Vietnam and through the account of the Blakc Panther in Chicago who was killed (the close up of the bullet holes in the doorway was very powerful for me).

    Mike, I vaguely remember some POW images, and in the early 80s remember seeing the vets in Washington at the Vietnam memorial. I also remember hearing a radio news story about a couple of Black Panthers being killed. But I certainly didn’t understand this history. I do think that WU provides at least one very good narrative of that history, even without a clearer sense of their politics.

  4. Chris Martin Said,

    June 23, 2004 @ 12:54 pm

    Thanks for the review. You didn’t mention what your take on the morality of their action is. I personally think their actions were immoral and the further tragedy is that some of them have not expressed any remorse, and that they are still respected by segments of the left, and in one case employed by Northwestern U.

    Btw your link to Ebert’s review is broken.

  5. chuck Said,

    June 23, 2004 @ 1:24 pm

    Thanks for the note on the Ebert link.

    I’ll be honest, I’m not entirely sure *what* my take is on the morality of their actions. I think that’s why I never really took a position on that in the review. I shared many of their political positions, but I’m inherently a non-violent person, so it’s hard for me to judge whether or not certain types of violence are appropriate. This is something I’m still grappling with, and I’m glad that the film didn’t provide any easy answers.

  6. chuck Said,

    June 23, 2004 @ 2:35 pm

    Okay, I think all the links are fixed. I composed this entry on Word, something I don’t normally do, and the quotation marks didn’t convert properly.

  7. Chris Martin Said,

    June 25, 2004 @ 10:51 am

    Chuck
    I think not taking a position on the issues is itself a moral action. I’m not trying to sound pushy or clever, but pointing out that a non-choice can be viewed as support for the Weather Underground. I could write a long essay on why I think they’re immoral, but I think the clincher is the incident of the murder of the guard in the Brinks truck and two policemen. That murder left women widowed and children orphaned, something that is simply unjustifiable. Btw there’s an interesting essay on that robbery and on the nature of the Boudin family here:
    http://www.powells.com/review/2003_10_30.html

  8. chuck Said,

    June 25, 2004 @ 12:18 pm

    Okay, I’ll restate a little. I do think these murders are wrong, but I’m not sure I can place the responsibility for that action on the entire group. I think that my earlier decision not to make a choice is due to my attempt to get around the “ambivalent notsalgia” about the violence that “Chris in Boston” described. I do identify with many of their political commitments, but I don’t identify with the violent means they used to achieve those ends (not that it’s even *that* simple).

    The Wolfe essay is a good read, but I’m not sure I follow (or share) all of his conclusions. He writes with some regret of the Boudin family (or politicians in general) that “We examine their motives as well as their objectives, their psychology as well as their politics, their fantasies as well as their five-year plans.” But then he’s spent the entire essay doing just that. I have mixed feelings about such an approach in that I think it obscures the real political convictions that support the actions of a specific group (whether political radicals or Texas oilmen).

  9. Chris in Boston Said,

    June 25, 2004 @ 2:35 pm

    Chris, you may know there are excerpts from the de Antonio film on the DVD, but like you, I’d like to see the whole thing.

    I saw the film in the theatre – and there was about a one-minute (maybe less?) excerpt from de Antonio’s documentary. Does the DVD have more as an extra?

  10. Chris Martin Said,

    June 25, 2004 @ 2:41 pm

    First you can’t neatly separate motives from actions. Violence was an essential part of who the Weather Underground were. Just as MLK, Jr. explicitly rejected Malcolm X (until very late in life when X changed), I think people who believe in protesting with the appropriate amount of force should reject allies who are willing to kill.

    Second the Weather Underground, unlike the Anti-War Movement or the Free Speech Movement, were essentially communist revolutionaries who wanted to overthrow constitutional democracy in the U.S. I don’t think you’re implying that you identify with that central idea.

    I understand what you mean about Wolfe being rueful about the analysis of the Boudin family, but since he’s reviewing a book, he has to provide his own analysis. Otherwise it would be a book review without mentioning the book’s content.

  11. chuck Said,

    June 25, 2004 @ 3:15 pm

    Chris in Boston: There are excerpts on the DVD, but I’m not sure how much they’ve excerpted. I had to return the movie before I had time to check.

    Chris Martin: You’re right about separating motives from action–I should have been clearer about that. that’s what I was trying to imply in the parenthetical phrase in my last comment.

    “Identify with” is probably not the right phrase. Like theirs, my political beliefs are informed by Marx, but I don’t see their type of “revolution” as productive (I’ve been stumbling over this sentence for ten minutes–that’s the best I can do right now). To be honest, I don’t have a completely articulated political wordview, which is why I ususally only discuss politics elliptically here.

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