'Weather' report: insight into radicals
By Arthur Salm
October 17, 2008
(Editor's note: With the Weathermen and co-founder Bill Ayers turning
up in current campaign rhetoric, Shadow Distribution is re-releasing
on a limited basis this 2003 documentary. Here is the original
Union-Tribune review from September 2003.)
They thought they knew which way the wind was blowing: In 1969, the
Weathermen hijacked the anti-war Students for a Democratic Society
(SDS) and made it into an organization with the purpose of
overthrowing the government of the United States. Violent acts –
bombings, mostly – turned them into fugitives.
The compelling, troubling documentary "The Weather Underground"
explores their motives. What transformed intelligent, privileged,
highly educated young (so young!) men and women into outlaws
dedicated to violent revolution? And what confluence of cultural
eddies so befuddled them that they came to believe that, rather than
playing out the paranoid fantasies of a few dozen like-minded souls,
they were the vanguard of a nationwide movement?
Through interviews with both leaders and foot soldiers, supplemented
by archival footage and photos, the filmmakers convey the
disorienting oddness of that time, and wring insight from the confusion.
The short answer is that years of protest had been futile: The war in
Vietnam went on. Tens of thousands of Americans, and hundreds of
thousands of Vietnamese, had died. And still it went on.
"I think it made us all a little crazy," says Brian Flanagan, who
appears perpetually a little confused: What happened? How did I get here?
A rueful Mark Rudd suggests that the fact of the Vietnam War "was
this knowledge that we couldn't handle. It was too big. We didn't
know what to do."
What they did, finally, was blow things up. Something like a score of
bombings around the country (carefully timed so as not to hurt anyone
– they were still, on some profound level, good boys and girls) set
the FBI on their collective tail; at one point Bernardine Dohrn was
literally Public Enemy Number One.
In a sense, the FBI was delusional, as well: The Weather Underground
was a threat, sure – it was a threat to blow up some buildings; it
was hardly a threat to the very fabric of the United States of
America. What was the FBI thinking?
The war ended. Times changed. One by one the rebels turned themselves
in. Most of them walked: The FBI had broken so many laws in pursuing
them that their cases were thrown out of court.
Now these middle-age citizens look back, trying to figure out how
they had come to fashion, then naively inhabit, such a twisted
intellectual and emotional landscape.
"If you think that you have the moral high ground, that's a very
dangerous position, and you can do some really dreadful things,"
Rudd finds it hard "to tease out what was right from what was wrong.
Part of what was right about the Weather Underground was our
understanding of what the position of the U.S. is in the world. ...
In a way, I still don't know what to do with this knowledge. I don't
know what needs to be done now. And it's still eating away at me,
just as it did 30 years ago."
There is, of course, something sad about that statement – but
something exuberant, as well: the very fact of caring so deeply. In
resurrecting "the intensity of their passion," "The Weather
Underground" becomes something of an exuberant statement itself.