A Review of The Weather Underground

Directed by Bob Siegel, and Sam Green, nominated for a 2003 Oscar, (and now finally available on DVD) Weather Underground hauntingly chronicles and contextualizes the ‘life and death’ of the Weathermen (later the Weather Underground), a radical left splinter-sect from Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). In 1969, enraged by US military genocide in Southeast Asia, and frustrated at the failure of the more pacifist anti-war movement to stop the war, the Weathermen split from the broader student anti-war movement and SDS to ‘bring the war home.’ They took their name from the Bob Dylan lyric, “You don’t need a weatherman to tell which way the wind’s blowing” and began from the political premise (to put it bluntly) that all rich and most working-class white people within the US were complicit with the US war crimes in Southeast Asia, and indeed were ‘the enemy’ in their tolerance of an intolerable, imperialist status quo. After publicly breaking with SDS, the Weathermen challenged the Chicago police to street combat in what were known as the “Days of Rage,” and-after that didn’t go so well-formed secret revolutionary cells and went underground in cities across the US. (Hence the name-change.)

Imagining themselves as the white rebel allies of revolutionary (I am tempted to write real revolutionary) organizations like the Black Panther Party, as well as third world struggles for national liberation, the Weathermen hoped to spark black people and working-class youth into a domestic uprising against the US government. For more than a decade, their members waged guerilla war against symbols of American power, bombing the D.C. Capitol building, and the offices of the New York Police Department, among other targets.

Articulate, young, well-educated and media savvy, the group became cult icons to the some in the student counterculture, while serving as poster-children for Nixon’s crusade against domestic ‘anarchy.’ (Fred Hampton of the Chicago Black Panther Party, on the other hand, criticized the Weathermen as ‘opportunistic, individualistic, anarchistic, and Custer-istic.’ For Hampton, the Revolution was a community process of building, mobilizing and organizing for change, not simply a demolishing of ‘the system’ as it stands.)

After an accidental bomb-explosion killed three of their members (the only three people that ever died as a direct result of WU actions) the Weathermen revised their bombing philosophy, vowing to target only empty buildings in symbolic response for acts of US imperialism, aggression, and injustice. This bombing campaign they kept up all the way into the early 1980s, by which time the group had gradually dissolved, with many members of the group re-emerging from hiding. Some returned to serve prison sentences, others to freedom, some to repent, others to continue lives of progressive action.

The narrative of the documentary The Weather Underground strings together gritty, previously unseen film, television, and radio footage, pausing at regular intervals to bring us the comments, remembrances, and reflections of a number of the original historical participants: including former members of the Weather Underground-both repentant and unrepentant–, as well as an FBI agent who was attempting to capture them, and Todd Gitlin, a former President of SDS who still fumes at the memory of how the left-sect Weathermen helped to split and to marginalize the broader student anti-war movement in 1969.

In clear sympathy for the anti-imperialist perspective–though not for the terrorist tactics of its subjects– The Weather Underground maintains a balanced, non-manipulative, and non-didactic tone. Though its subjects engaged in guerilla warfare for decades, the film forgoes the -often comical-guerilla ‘gotcha’ tactics of Michael Moore, for a more subtle and multi-layered, multi-perspective approach that seriously poses questions and critically contextualizes events, without providing easy answers.

In our culture, it takes a lot for a documentary-let alone a politically left-wing one-to reach a mass audience. And so as I was contemplating this article several months back, right as The Weather Underground was being shamefully passed over for the Oscar-the winning director of Fog of War, Errol Morris, all too tentatively taking up Michael Moore’s anti-war mantle from last year-describing the war in Iraq as possibly another ‘rabbit hole’ like Vietnam-for a moment I despaired. After all, what movie theatres would bother showing a left-wing documentary unless it was an official “award-winner”? Still now I wonder to what extent Fog of War has obscured this even more crucial anti-war documentary.

That WU didn’t win isn’t exactly surprising of course. For though the film was widely praised –the New York Times, for instance, called it a “terrifically smart and solid piece of film-making”-there remained to my reading-even in positive reviews-a resistance to its key left-wing messages. In fact most of the dozen or so reviews that I read in researching this article did their best to avoid confronting the toughest questions posed by the film, instead reading it principally in terms of the horrifying and yet fascinating tale of Weathermen ‘terrorism.’

In our post-911 era, when the ‘war on terrorism’ is invoked to justify just about every kind of government action from the invasions of privacy to the one in Iraq, it shouldn’t surprise me that-however deeply impressed by the film they were-most mainstream reviewers interpret the film primarily as a ‘cautionary tale’ of how idealism may descended into terrorism, a story of how the Left’s obsession with the violence of US foreign policy eventually transformed them into the ‘evil which it deplored.’ In fact, film-maker Sam Green has told Alternet.org in an interview that “the alienating danger of thinking you have THE answer to this immensely difficult challenge [the challenge of stopping the war, or of opposing US imperialism] is one important aspect of the WU story for people to consider.” Surely there are be elements of the militant ultra-left that today may benefit from this piece of wisdom.

But such a ‘cautionary’ response to the film, while partially true, and certainly understandable post-911, remains blind to the works’ most powerfully resonant, and continuingly relevant, insights: chiefly, that the vast majority of the political violence of this era-as in ours-was wrought by the US government-not by anti-government radicals, and that this has been true not only in Southeast Asia and around the world, but even within the US of A. The film quotes Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.–“the most dangerous man in America” according to the FBI at the time-in his 1967 speech denouncing the US as “the largest purveyor of violence in the world,” and it validates his claim, not only with shocking video footage and staggering statistics from the brutal air and land attacks in Southeast Asia (which killed 2-5million), but with just-as-shocking footage of Black Panther Fred Hampton’s blood-stained bedroom moments after he and fellow Panther Mark Clark were assassinated by Chicago PD in 1969. (Indeed the Chicago Panthers had been labeled by J. Edgar Hoover as the biggest ‘threat’ to the ‘internal security of the US” precisely because, while espousing a practical revolutionary anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist program they had remained deeply hostile to violence-working to end racial gang wars in their city-and had abstained from the violent rhetoric of radicals like the Weathermen.)

Among other episodes, the documentary details how the Weathermen-by stealing FBI files and distributing them to the media-helped to expose the FBI’s systematic infiltration, disruption, and repression of the entire left-including the Black Panthers-through the Counter-Intelligence Program, or COINTELPRO. Thus while Malcolm X has become infamous for his out-of-context phrase ‘By any means necessary,’ the film shows that it was the US government that truly put this phrase into practice in its cynical and often deadly efforts to destroy the radical movements in this country.

All of this ‘contextual’ footage not only makes the overly zealous reaction of Weathermen more comprehensible to the post-modern viewer, it also disrupts the moral simplicity of liberal or conservative interpretations of the film as a one-sided ‘warning’ about the dangers of radicalism. Such anti-radical interpretations tend to imply that the ‘safe’ and ‘moral’ way to prevent such leftist excess is to stick to the conformist ‘center’ of US political discourse, a place that this film makes clear is far from ‘pure.’

Sam Green himself has stated that he’s “much more interested in moral ambiguity, thanin moral certainty.” And indeed the final moments of The Weather Underground trouble any ‘pure’ political stance, leaving us instead with the echoing words of middle-aged Mark Rudd, an ex-Weathermen, while the screen casts us flying over fertile green fields of Southeast Asia. As we listen to Rudd’s closing reflections, our field of vision is crisscrossed by American missiles, fired from just beneath our line-of-sight, honing in and exploding upon village roofs and jungle canopy; houses and trees burst into flame. While we look out from the chopper, Rudd admits to the microphone that he is ashamed of some of what he did in the Weathermen, and that the terrorist-style approach was wrong and ineffective. Yet he closes by saying that what he still believes they were right about one thing: the knowledge that the United States Government, the government under which we live, was and remains today the most violent and destructive military power on earth. “This knowledge we couldn’t handle. It was just too big.” Rudd says, “We didn’t know what to do.” This problem, of ‘what to do with this knowledge’ still burns in his stomach to this day, he tells us. To this day, as the houses still burn. Fade to black.

The tragedy of the Weathermen, as it comes through the film, is that though they possessed this knowledge, they lacked faith in the average American’s ability to come to grasp it, and lacked a program to teach and to empower people to challenge systems of domination for themselves. The example of the Black Panthers, feeding poor city kids free breakfasts, offering political education classes to working-class adults, and vowing to defend the community against police harassment and ‘pig’ terror-alas they were not ready for the extent of the repression that was to be aimed at them-comes subtly through as an alternative, and more politically viable revolutionary practice.

In the end however, the question that WU leaves us with thus is not just ‘How could all this happen?’-the question of immediate interest for many mainstream commentators-but rather ‘What do we do with this terrible, burning knowledge?’ What do we do here in the belly of the beast, while the United States government drops cluster bombs on Iraqis and funds Israeli war crimes in the Palestinian territories, contrives coups in Haiti, and Venezuela, and (God forbid) in Cuba? It is here that the film leaves us, and here where meaningful anti-imperialist theory and practice must begin.

JOSEPH RAMSEY is a PhD. student in the English Department at Tufts University in Medford, MA. His dissertation in progress is tentatively entitled: Red Pulp: Radicalism and Repression in Mass-Popular Fiction, 1930s-1960s. He can be reached at joseph.ramsey@tufts.edu.

The Weather Underground is now available on DVD.