Media

Uncovering the Weather Underground

The new documentary film on the '70s terrorist group offers a thought-provoking insight into extremist belief communities.
It’s hard for many veteran leftists to uncurl their lips on hearing the phrase “Weather Underground.” A home-grown terrorist movement with pretensions to Third World revolution, it grabbed the headlines with bombings punctuating ’70s history and stigmatized the entire range of left activism until its leaders surrendered in disarray.

Even for the Weather-weary, though, the new film "The Weather Underground" by Sam Green and Bill Siegel can’t help but hold fascination. Green and Siegel, who were both children in the ’70s, have made a feature documentary that goes behind the mask of terror. The result is an illuminating footnote on history, and also a thought-provoking insight into extremist belief communities.

The Weather Underground is not a wide-angle history film; it doesn’t even claim to give you movement history. Instead, it provides a platform for its central characters -- members of the underground -- to recall and reflect on their own lives. The result is character studies that are both uncommented and unvarnished, and an insider’s tale of group madness. “When you feel you have right on your side,” says one-time Weatherman Brian Flanagan, standing in the bar he now owns, “you can do some horrific things.” And some ludicrous ones.

The film is organized chronologically, with flash-forwards to today as middle-aged Weatherfolk -- many of them still social activists -- retell their memories. The story begins in 1968, with the disillusionment prompted by escalation of the war in Vietnam, assassinations, and splintering of left groups. The impossibly young activists, still vibrant in the Ektachrome tints of that era’s film, glitter with the charisma that Todd Gitlin recalls. He likens them to Bonnie and Clyde, and says, with a shrug: “They were into youth, exuberance, sex, drugs. They wanted action.”

It continues with a failed search for the working class; for an end to monogamy through group sex; and an end to the state through bombings. The New York townhouse explosion that killed three Weathermen as they were preparing bombs sends the rest underground and puts a damper on grand terrorist schemes. Until they surrender -- lost in America but still outwitting the hapless FBI -- they execute publicity-seeking attacks on symbolically rich sites like the Pentagon, State Department, police and state government offices, and ITT and Gulf Oil headquarters.

What propelled them, other than the thrill of attention? They each refer to the revolutionary tenor of the time, and to their revulsion at American empire. “Doing nothing in a period of violence is a form of violence,” Naomi Jaffe explains quietly. “The Vietnam War made us all a little crazy,” one says, and another seconds it. “None of us thought we were gonna live through it,” says Bill Ayers.

No matter what, the filmmakers resolutely avoid commenting on their central characters; they don’t contradict, contextualize, celebrate or snicker. And so they build, through the characters revealed in these interviews, a picture of a group whose self-delusion deepened until underground life sealed their isolation. The occasional glimpses of the tumultuous moment -- shooting of a Vietnamese in the street, dying U.S. soldiers, presidents pontificating -- are gestures to headlines of the times. More importantly, as they exploit the privilege they are so embarrassed by with every media appearance and symbolic act, they testify to the frenetically mediacentric society in which the Weatherfolk were media stars.

Bernardine Dohrn was the star of the Weathermen then, and she’s the star of this movie. Unrepentant and self-assured, she provides guided tours of once-hot spots, including her first hideout (but doesn’t share how she managed to stay underground for a decade). Her husband, Bill Ayers, walks over the ground he once rioted over in Chicago. Like Naomi Jaffe, they are proud of having been part of a worldwide revolutionary movement. But they never explain exactly how they were part of such a movement, other than in their minds. (They do claim more of an alliance with the Black Panthers, but it’s more than others would acknowledge.) In this film, as in life, the Weatherfolk speak mostly to each other.

Others live with regret and self-doubt, but in no less of a feedback loop. Mark Rudd, a firebrand student organizer at Columbia University, is now a community college math teacher with a bad conscience. David Gilbert takes solace in not having killed anyone else with their bombs (even though he was part of a holdup in which others died later -- an incident the film ignores). The film closes with Brian Flanagan at the site of the New York townhouse (“it never gets any easier”) and Rudd saying, “In a way, I still don’t know what to do with this knowledge.” They may not be much as political analysts, but they are fascinating as survivors of a political cult.

Filmmakers Green and Siegel were both raised in families where politics was dinner-table conversation. Green was attracted as a child to the Weather Underground as part of what he now calls his “false nostalgia” for the ’60s. An award-winning filmmaker, Green has focused on dissident, offbeat and criminal characters in other films, such as The Rainbow Man/John 3:16 and Pie Fight ’69. Siegel (who once interned at In These Times) found himself captivated by the puzzle of the “generational cliff” of memory that the Weathermen had tumbled over. “No one younger than me knows who they were,” he said at the Sundance Film Festival, where the film was shown before winning the top documentary award at the San Francisco Film Festival. They decided the Weather Underground would make a great subject, and also could provoke some good conversations about politics, violence and responsibility. The two spent two years meeting with principals, winning their trust, before commencing filming. They also spoke to harsh critics, and read histories of the period.

They were finishing the film (which has major funding from the Independent Television Service, the part of public TV that funds work “for underserved audiences”) when 9/11 hit. “That changed the editorial focus,” said Green. “It made the whole issue more serious. There was a lot less room for humor.”

Bernardine Dohrn, who also attended Sundance, misses the humor. “We blew up a statue of a policeman -- a statue! It was a joke!” she says. Bill Ayers, at her side but plugged into a cell phone to receive word from his son of an antiwar rally in Washington, nods. “It was poke-you-in-the-eye stuff,” he acknowledges. “It was theater,” Dohrn says emphatically.

Both praise the film for its “no nostalgia, no axe to grind” approach, but they hate the ending. “It ends with sadness for the loss of three people. But tragedy pulled us back from a very dangerous strategy,” says Dohrn. “I look back and say, this was a very restrained movement. We weren’t wrong about the U.S. power internationally, about the jailing of black people. We were doing our work in a way where we didn’t kill people.”

Still, Ayers likes how they were portrayed. “This is a film about people who were in earnest, maybe too earnest, about being engaged. It is a cautionary tale about only listening to yourselves.” That’s not a mistake Green and Siegel intend to make.

Patricia Aufderheide, a professor in the School of Communication at American University in Washington, was culture editor of In These Times from 1978 to 1982. Now a senior editor of the magazine, her most recent book is The Daily Planet: A Critic on the Capitalist Culture Beat.