At the end of the 1960's, the various student youth movements took a sharp turn toward the far left. Frustrated by their failures to halt America's involvement in the Vietnam War, a growing minority of student activist leaders whole-heartedly embraced Marxist dogma and began agitating for the overthrow of the United States government. There were a few niggling problems to attend to first, such as taking over the leadership of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), which they accomplished at the 1968 SDS national convention. An interesting thing to remember about extremists regardless of their political leanings is worth mentioning at this point: radicals can't get along with one another. Views and positions take on the rigidity of absolute, immutable truth, and anyone who opposes those views is the enemy--even if they're on your side to begin with. Thus SDS almost immediately disintegrated into squabbling factions of increasing irrelevancy. The most notable group to arise from the ashes of SDS were the Weathermen, an extreme far left organization devoted to bringing about a Marxist revolution in the United States. The name of the group, as you probably know if you're reading this, came from a Bob Dylan song.
The Weathermen, later known as the Weather Underground after the members went into hiding, utterly failed to achieve any of their objectives. Their first big action occurred in Chicago when the group launched their own version of Kristalnacht, called "The Days of Rage." The Weathermen and their associates roamed through the streets of Chicago, breaking windows, fighting with cops, and generally making a huge nuisance of themselves. Surprisingly, this little action failed to rouse the citizenry from their capitalist coma, a realization that seemed to shock this merry bunch of pranksters. Angered by this failure, the Weathermen decided to take up bomb making as a hobby. What followed were years of targeted bombings against such diverse targets as corporations, government institutions, universities, and other structures serving the "enemies of the people." The Weather Underground suffered setbacks, too, like the accidental detonation of a bomb that killed radicals Ted Gold, Diana Oughton, and Terry Robbins in a New York City townhouse on March 6, 1970. Still, the revolution must go on, so over the next several years the bombs continued to explode across the country as the Weather Underground continued to release written or tape recorded "communiqués" justifying their violent actions. By the early 1980s most of the members turned themselves into the authorities, exhausted from their years of living in hiding.
Why two paragraphs of tedious summary about an irrelevant political group long gone from the American landscape? Because this fascinating documentary, "The Weather Underground," covers most of this material in minute detail through a collection of vintage news reports, documents, film footage, recreations, and interviews. Made a couple of years ago and aired widely on PBS, which is where I saw part of it and wanted more, the documentary revisits many of the principal players more than two decades after the group dissolved. We get to see and hear Billy Ayers, Bernadine Dohrn, Mark Rudd, Naomi Jaffe, David Gilbert, Brian Flanagan, and Laura Whitehorn reminisce about their days as revolutionary fighters battling for the soul of America. Moreover, interviews with former SDS leader Todd Gitlin, former Black Panther Kathleen Cleaver, and FBI agent Don Strickland provide a different point of view on the activities of the Weather Underground. By listening to these people recount their experiences, we learn more about how angry radicals became over the murder of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton, about how the group helped Timothy Leary escape from prison, and learn to marvel in awe at the massive comb over Mark Rudd sported as a young communist revolutionary.
It's not too difficult to see where the filmmakers' loyalties lie regarding the activities of the Weather Underground. Although careful not to make them look too cool, it's fairly obvious the presentation aims to present these characters as admirable figures. They placed a baseball bat in Billy Ayers's hands as he strolled down memory lane remembering the "Days of Rage" fiasco. While we could write off this stunt as sensationalism, it's more problematic to examine the questions put to the various members. Why did Kathy Boudin's name never come up in the film? Probably because Boudin, unlike many members we see here, did kill people in the name of a revolutionary cause. In the early 1980s, she joined the Black Liberation Army and took part in an armored car robbery that resulted in the deaths of two police officers and a security guard. The ghost of Boudin is apparently a problem the filmmakers wished to avoid, although I should credit them for interviewing David Gilbert, a man currently serving a life sentence for his involvement in the same crime. It just seems most of the questions don't dig too deeply into the questionable practices of the Weather revolution. Then again, maybe they don't need to; several of the former members appear as though they're having problems coming to terms with their past behavior. That's a hopeful sign.
Although I've had rough words in the past about these people and their despicable actions, I had a tough time disliking them in the film. A few of them, primarily Mark Rudd and Brian Flanagan, seem like people you could sit down with for a few hours and have an interesting conversation about any topic. The commentary track with Ayers and Dohrn is well worth a listen primarily for the realization that even stolid commies have a self-deprecating sense of humor. But you also discover that several of these people aren't quite ready to repudiate their former positions. I think it was Laura Whitehorn who said she would do it all over again if given the chance, a view that is hardly encouraging. Give this one a watch, though. It's mesmerizing.