Directed by: Sam Green and Bill Siegel
Premise: A documentary about The Weather Underground, a domestic terrorist group that was active throughout the 1970s.
What Works: The Weather Underground was an important part of the Vietnam era and yet the generations born after the war are unlikely to know anything about this group. That alone makes this documentary an important piece of work as it catalogues a key element of that era. The popular image of the counter cultural movement of the 1960s and 70s is generally a fuzzy and watered down version of reality. As this film reveals, the anti-war movement, as well as broader struggles for civil rights, gender equality, and economic reform, were flavored with bitter animosity and violence was a part of everyday reality for activists in these groups. The filmmakers of The Weather Underground do an excellent job of characterizing the time and reconstructing the context out of which the Weathermen emerged. They accomplish this through an effective mix of archival material and contemporary interviews with former Weathermen as well as activists from other organizations and former law enforcement officials. This is a story about how otherwise well intentioned people allowed themselves to be led into terrorism and the documentation of how the group progressed from a relatively bland organization and into a violent extremist group is both frightening and fascinating. One of the risks in a documentary like this is that it might either trivialize the Weatherman by reducing them to fools or worse characterize them as heroes. Fortunately the filmmakers avoid both of those hazards and instead create a smart reflection on why and how these people did what they did without apologizing for them. The testimony from the former Weathermen are quite interesting and the film allows them to express their perspective, often contrasting their contemporary views with the rhetoric they espoused two decades earlier. Aside from its value as a historical document, The Weather Underground is an enduring lesson in how unmitigated hubris and idealism can be counterproductive and how stupidity can be deadly.
What Doesn’t: The one noticeable gap in The Weather Underground is the way it glosses over the end of the organization and how its key members carried on with their lives afterward. The documentarians do catalogue how and why the organization came to an end but mostly in broad strokes. One of the most important things to remember about The Weather Underground is that they never accomplished the broader goals that they had in mind. In fact, the true legacy of The Weather Underground may be the way their violent tactics turned public opinion against the political left and paved the way for the dominance of right-wing politics throughout the 1980s. Unfortunately the film only covers this in passing. Former members of The Weather Underground provide testimony and narration throughout the documentary and they come across generally credible. However, some of them have clearly come to distance themselves from their past but, aside from a few brief end title cards, the filmmakers miss the opportunity to catalogue the reformation of these people in the twenty years between the end of the organization and the production of the documentary.
DVD extras: Commentary tracks, Weatherman audio communiques, the short film “David Gilbert: A Lifetime of Struggle,” excerpts from Emile de Antonio’s Underground, a statement by the filmmakers, and crew biographies.
Bottom Line: The Weather Underground is a fascinating documentary about the danger of righteousness. The history lesson that the film provides is important but even more relevant is the documentary’s human story of corruption. This is important viewing for anyone who considers him or herself an activist.
Episode: #438 (May 12, 2013)