Sam Green and Bill Siegel’s “The Weather Underground”; Quiet Storytelling About Radical Subjects
by Ray Pride
The International Documentary Association recently named Michael Moore’s “Bowling for Columbine” the best documentary ever. What a waste of a perfectly good award! While Michael Moore’s gamesplaying as a political provocateur has its value in asking questions others won’t, and Nick Broomfield is maturing nicely into his own in-your-face style, what’s to be done about the old-fashioned narrative that tells its story cleanly and quietly? (Even if it is replete with sex, violence, and strident political extremism.)
“The Weather Underground,” by Sam Green and Bill Siegel, an impressively sturdy documentary about a difficult-to-master slice of American history, is a sweet rebuke to the narcissism-as-entertainment wing of contemporary doc-making. Its politics exists primarily in the choice of subject: a group of young people, a radical political group called the Weathermen, who bombed the U.S. Capitol. It’s thorny work, allowing the viewer to consider the ambitions and failures of the radical group, rather than a prickly irritation closer to monologue than investigation.
The feature-length, painstaking chronology, filled with interviews from former members, FBI agents, and adversarial former colleagues such as historian Todd Gitlin, turns out to be more topical today than the filmmakers could ever imagined it would ever be, with the parameters of protest against a potential, unpopular war once again under discussion.
In October 1969, several hundred activists wearing football helmets and carrying baseball bats and lead pipes, wreaked mayhem for 48 hours, starting on Chicago’s Michigan Avenue, hoping to prompt a revolution against the Vietnam War and racism. A core group went underground, and battled the U.S. government, notably breaking Timothy Leary out of prison and bombing a range of federal facilities. (It prompted one of the largest FBI manhunts in history, which the group evaded for years.) “The Weather Underground” charts both the ideas and outrage of the group in interviews with Underground members who have moved on to other careers, including Northwestern University Law School faculty member Bernardine Dohrn and her husband Bill Ayers, author of “Fugitive Days,” a memoir of time spent underground. Ayers had the misfortune of a quarrelsome interview about the book appearing in the New York Times on September 11, 2001, and the backlash that greeted that bad timing is a model of how controversial ideas are received in larger media today.
But “The Weather Underground” is, at least formally, an orthodox documentary, while testing the received wisdom of what is “acceptable discourse” in our land today. These were our terrorists, and the film also chronicles those who didn’t make it back to the other side, including David Gilbert, serving a life sentence for his participation in a 1981 hold-up of an armored truck. What is most affecting, however, is seeing idealists in their 50s and 60s, who have made peace with their consciences, or have not, who have admitted to failures, or will not, yet carry the witness of experience about their failure utopia. “We fucked up” is the underlying refrain, but what was the failure? Did they fail American ideals? Communist or socialist ideals? Did they fail the revolution? All these morally ambiguous questions are implicit, yet the telling doesn’t seem to fall prey to a famous observation, sometimes attributed to Norman Mailer, that the man who remains a liberal is a fool.
It’s more commonplace than that: In its quiet, studied fashion, the 10 minutes of interviews that cap Green and Siegel’s doc suggest a universal truth. We all fail to be perfect, we fail our idealism, we fail history, all because we fail to be immortal. The last few segments of interview in “The Weather Underground” are heartening, saddening and true. The film’s most striking moment comes at the end when group member Naomi Jaffe, older, married with children, reflects the inevitable sorrow of a life long-lived. Her beliefs haven’t changed so much as the times; if not for her family, she tells us, sure, she’d do it all over again.
[ Editor’s Note: indieWIRE first published this review in January as part of our Sundance 2003 coverage. ]