The movie places us in the late Sixties and early Seventies without using any music of the era (an effectively alienating decision); instead the predominant theme is an eerie drone piece (possibly courtesy of San Francisco experimental band Tarantel, who show up in the end credits) that creates an underlying tension that suits the story. We are assaulted with gruesome Vietnam War footage fairly quickly, just to remind us of the violent context that gave rise to the whole question of violent vs. nonviolent resistance. Unlike now, where the general public is relatively shielded from the reality of a war their own country has been embroiled in for years, this sort of stuff was on every TV, which may have made some difference. When people think of the Sixties, they invariably think of hippies, the Beatles, peace and love, etc. What can get forgotten is that all this went on during a nasty little war on the other side of the world that was being resisted by a steadily growing portion of the population. (By the same token, why do you suppose there are so many classic reggae songs about peace and love? Because the slums of Jamaica are so horrendously violent.)
The Weather Underground were the stars of the SDS, the most visible, charismatic members of a large and increasingly influential anti-war youth organization who, enraged and frustrated with what they saw as the ineffectiveness of non-violent resistance, broke away and started their own, more militant faction. They were young, magnetic, sexy, committed, and self-serious. As the movie traces their history, there's a palpable sense of envy that these privileged white kids can't hide for their peers in the Black Panther Party. I kept thinking of the old Clash lyric:
White riot, I wanna riot!
White riot, a riot of my own!
In a piece of vintage news footage, one Panther coolly dismisses the Weathermen (as they called themselves in the beginning before the more gender-inclusive name was adopted...how a group with an intense, dominant personality like Bernardine Dohrn speaking for them could ever have given themselves a name with the word "men" in it in the first place is beyond me but those were different times), labeling their actions as "folly" and labeling the group "Custeristic", going on to explain that "Custeristic" means irresponsibly leading others into life-threatening situations for their own egos. (Good word...I must remember it; thank you, Mr. Anonymous Uncredited Panther.) The Custeristic tag certainly manifested itself in the WU's first big action, the Days Of Rage. Oh yeah, I can just see this: it's 1969, a year after the 1968 Democratic Convention fiasco, and somebody decides it'd be a great idea to get as many young people as possible to descend on Chicago, go wild, and mess with the cops. Remember, these are Chicago cops we're talking about. Yeah right. Had I been a young activist then, I probably would have been tempted to respond, "hmmmm, nice idea, good luck with that, I think I'll be washing my hair that night though."
Bill Ayers himself recalls the event (in a slightly cutesy move on the part of the filmmakers, he is shown in his present incarnation as a mild-mannered middle-aged academic, retracing the route of the demonstration with a baseball bat in his hand), saying that they had been assured that there'd be hundreds of thousands of kids there, but it turned out to be more like 150. So they made the best of it, rampaging through a rich Chicago neighborhood, breaking windows and fighting with cops. The film is vague about how they managed to get away with this. The whole escapade comes off as a nice cathartic political tantrum, but ultimately pointless and having zero impact on the war or the power structure, and probably even playing right into Richard Nixon's hands by strengthening public support for "law and order". Custeristic folly indeed.
The expressed desire was to "bring the war back home", to make the average American feel the visceral impact of a faraway, unjust, and deceitful war more directly so that they would be forced to take a stand one way or another. But the fantasy of a spontaneous, violent mass uprising was a failure. The attempt at shock therapy only made them another piece of the spectacle. Former SDS comrades (like Todd Gitlin, now a liberal pundit who contributes to Talking Points Memo and gets a lot of face time here as the Designated Critical Voice) started trashing them publicly for their "kindergarten" ideas of revolution.
Needless to say, our protagonists were undeterred by such talk, but reacted to the less-than-overwhelming response to their attempted mass uprising by concluding that America as a whole was a lost cause, and therefore it was time to step up the violence and make as many ordinary citizens as possible feel the pain that their government was causing other innocents in faraway corners of the world. Call it divine intervention if you want, but this near-turn towards outright terrorism (and there really isn't another word for it, my dear angry punk rock friends) was thwarted when a New York townhouse occupied by a particularly militant faction of the WU was blown to bits by an accidentally premature detonation of a bomb that was meant to be set off at a dance on a military base, killing three members of the group. The tragic accident may well have prevented them from pulling off something really stupid...or, if the New York faction's plan had been pulled off, would it have set a whole different chain of events in motion? A real revolution? Martial law? A quicker end to the war, or internment camps for dissenters all over the US? One has to wonder.
Oh yeah, we have to stop for a moment and ponder the whole "revolutionary" concept. Here is a small collection of people, maybe 20 or 30 strong, who (in Mark Rudd's words) fancied themselves as a "Communist cadre", whose goal was the violent overthrow of the US government. Delusional much? How exactly was this supposed to work anyway? And what exactly, IF all the odds had somehow been defied and this little group had actually succeeded in their goal, what would they actually have DONE NEXT? I can't stop thinking about the old joke about the dog who can't stop chasing cars and the burning question: if said dog actually caught one of the cars it was chasing, would it have the slightest idea what to do with it? OK, here you are, a group of starry-eyed hippies who've read a couple of Marx books, now in charge of a nation of a couple hundred million people, most of whom are less than enchanted with your views. Now what? Now that you're on top, how do you deal with the inevitable dissenting voices of the hundreds of millions of people you looked down on, whom you're now in charge of? Custeristic folly, anyone?
Not to mention the "Communist" thing. At one moment the filmmakers give us a montage of revolutionary unrest happening simultaneously all over the world. Conspicuously absent is the Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia, though the Chinese Cultural Revolution is shown, as if one could draw equivalencies between a top-down authoritarian manipulation of youth with the uprisings in Paris or Mexico City. As a recovering anarchist turned intensely anti-authoritarian but social-program-supporting liberal Democrat, I don't have much patience with or regard for anyone gullible enough to idealize the old state-capitalist systems of the defunct Iron Curtain; I recommend the history of 20th century Spain or Volume 2 of Emma Goldman's autobiography for anyone who still harbors the fantasy that hardline Communists should ever be trusted, and when Rudd and company start talking Communism (not long after Soviet tanks have rolled into Czechoslovakia), my own personal bullshit detector hits 11. As if the dinosaurs of the Soviet regime would have had any tolerance for these free-love acid-head libertines. The enemy of your enemy is not necessarily your friend, dumbasses.
So their ultimate goal was unattainable and ethically questionable nonsense; what fascinates us about the Weather Underground anyway? Perhaps it's their sheer audacity and boldness; here we are, several years into an even stupider, less justified, less popular, and dirtier war, and where are the strong voices that dare to really fuck shit up, who dare to say, "this is enough, and if things don't change NOW, THERE WILL BE CONSEQUENCES"? Part of the surreal feeling of watching this movie is the thought that "nobody would do this now". Of course, now we have an even weaker Constitution, we have the Patriot Act, the Department of Homeland Security, no-fly lists, "First Amendment Zones" for anti-war demonstrators...it ain't the same. On the other hand, the internet has altered the whole concept of mass communication; information is being shared in ways that weren't possible then. It's a different world now, for better or worse; we have the possibility of more access to what's really going on, but can we do anything more than watch it all on our screens?
Back to our story. The stated goal of bringing the war back home through indiscriminate carnage was scuttled after the New York explosion. Here's where things get interesting. The survivors convene, debate, argue, and most of them come to the conclusion that they must ensure that their violence is only against property, and actual human beings should be warned and protected from any harm as much as possible. At this point, the Weather Underground truly goes underground, dropping out and assuming new identities, while their activities become a sort of exploding performance art piece. Public statements are made that a relevant and related building will be bombed as a response to a particular injustice, authorities are informed that the premises must be cleared, BOOM. Sort of a non-violent approach to violence, or is it a violent approach to non-violence? Whatever it is, statements are made, material damage is done, but no casualties ensue. This sort of kinder, gentler terrorism goes on for a few years, and the Weatherfolks' romantic outlaws-with-a-cause stature continues. Some rich acidheads give them a pile of money to bust Timothy Leary out of jail, and they pull it off! You can't say these guys and gals did not know their stuff. (Leary looks especially foolish in this footage, clearly in over his head in Algeria with Eldridge Cleaver, mouthing revolutionary slogans less than enthusiastically. What a weird time this was.)
Again, the Vietnam War clips aid tremendously in the context, keeping the viewer focused on what these crazy people were so upset about. Accordingly, the resignation of Nixon and the end of the war sucks the wind out of everyone's sails. Suddenly, the scattered, hidden would-be revolutionaries are starting to feel irrelevant, even though the end of the war did not suddenly make everything better or leave America without any serious issues to argue about. But the war was clearly the main focusing issue for this group. The social dynamic falls apart gradually. Individuals are isolated, only connecting at designated meetings; when a member dissents against the group, they suddenly stop being told when the next meeting is scheduled, and the group dissipates further. By the 80s, most of them get sick of it all and turn themselves in. Many of them end up going free because the FBI conducted themselves so ineptly and illegally that their evidence against them is inadmissible. Other members, like David Gilbert, who is interviewed in prison, ally themselves with even more militant groups and get in far worse trouble. (Gilbert's nose is quite noticeably crooked, as if it has been broken. Who knows from where?)
Most of the interviewees seem dazed, yet sure that they were fighting for a just cause, though many are less sanguine about their own tactics. It's amusingly ironic that so many of these former college students who were so desperate to divest themselves of their bourgeois privilege have reverted to the academic life, but in the case of the Right's would-be betes noires Ayers and Dohrn, it seems appropriate that their obvious intellect and social conscience be channeled into something more constructive and influential now. From all accounts, they are big players in the Illinois educational system who have earned their place there, and only the hysterical inverse-Stalinists of our current nutcase Right could be afraid of them now. Mark Rudd, another former leader and a particularly strong voice of the group, looks emotional and a bit embarrassed towards the end as he cops to his "mixed feelings" about the whole experience. Naomi Jaffe says she would do it all again, but do it "better". Gilbert, in prison, has no doubt that they were doing the right thing.
One of the most affecting characters is Brian Flanagan, all working class New York gruffness (a left-wing Archie Bunker!), now the owner of his own bar. As he tells his story, Flanagan gives an air of older-but-wiser cynicism ("Oh God, they used to go on all night sometimes...it got a little too cult-like") still maintains his conviction about what he and his friends stood for, but takes a jaundiced view at their tactics. Fiercely loyal to the end, he will not give too many details about specific things they did, proudly sloughing it off, saying "I just can't do that." No matter what he's talking about at that moment though, in every scene his eyes are haunted in spite of himself, as if he knows things that he can never tell that traumatize him to this day, but he'll be damned if he ever tells you what they are. He is shown staring at the rebuilt townhouse where his old friends blew themselves up in the process of working to blow up somebody else. The pain in his eyes is clear, then he collects himself and turns away with a little resigned grin.
We've just passed through a time when the country teetered even closer to fascism, with an even more incoherent war and an even more malicious and dishonest administration in charge. Maybe it's because the focus was on the phantom of "terrorism" itself that nothing like the Weather Underground managed to emerge. Maybe we're better off for that, because it could be argued that they really were not very helpful. On the other hand, maybe we'd have been better off with some crazy Quixotic, Custeristic radicals out there on the fringe helping to move that old Overton Window over to a more sensible position.
Each time I watched this movie though (and I ended up watching it about six times trying to work out what on earth I was going to say about it), I couldn't help wondering if the excesses of the Weather Underground were part of the reason that, by the time I entered adulthood in the mid-70s, eager to find some sort of living, vibrant counterculture I could align with, the hippie generation seemed prematurely old, tired, and drained of all their blood, nerve and boldness, with little tolerance for the rude, unruly punk rock scene erupting all around them. Perhaps those oddly uptight longhaired fuddy-duddies I rebelled against so vehemently back then were nursing the same post-traumatic stress disorder that poor Brian Flanagan can't hide in this movie.
And maybe what seemed like apathy in more recent times is more a product of those years..."well, non-violent demonstrations don't work, but violence really doesn't work...what the hell does work?" I like to think that our new interactive media forms are beginning to make a difference---certainly they had everything to do with this new President (and yeah, now that the election is over, I feel perfectly free to say that some ex-Weathermen may have had an influence on him, AND THAT IS PROBABLY A GOOD THING)---and that everything from YouTube to Noodlebrain has had an impact on our evolution, which may be frustratingly slow, but may be ultimately more trustworthy than naive revolutionary fantasies which, given the unending potential craziness of the American psyche, are probably better not messed with, however much we may be tempted to court the notion.