With the recent memory of the U.S. government arguably acting against the will--or at least the judgment--of the American people, Sam Green & Bill Siegel's documentary The Weather Underground carries a timely cachet. This story of an American terrorist group which sent political messages with non-lethal bombings reilluminates a corner of history: the unrest of the seventies, wedged between the Summer of Love and the ascent of Reagan.
Originally named the Weathermen after the Bob Dylan lyric "You don't need a weatherman/To know which way the wind blows" (from "Subterranean Homesick Blues"), the Weather Underground was a militant splinter faction of Students for a Democratic Society. A former SDS leader calls the radical shift of support from peaceful protest to violent actions a feat of "organizational piracy." The Weather Underground was largely spurred by the apparent murder by police of Black Panther Fred Hampton. Aligning itself with the Black Panthers (who preferred not to be associated with the W.U.), the Weather Underground spoke not-so-softly about civil rights and social justice while carrying big sticks and planting bombs.
With the motto "Bring the War Home," the group espoused a philosophy that the Vietnam War--perhaps the foremost galvanizing global political event in the group's history--could no longer be tolerated by Americans if they felt its violent effects on the homefront. An accidental explosion while a bomb was being constructed killed three W.U. members and forestalled plans to target civilians. A shift in direction kept the group's record clean of murder, though plenty of public property blasted apart during the group's decade-long heyday.
Intense archival footage, harsh music, and readings by actress Lili Taylor from communiqués, letters and unpublished memoirs enhance this frequently gripping documentary. The documentary's most important elements are new interviews of several of the original Weather Underground leaders, one of whom continues to serve time, but most of whom have returned to middle-class, workaday existence; as one puts it, "One day, I just woke up." The doc also gives a few moments of lip service to the FBI investigation and the impact of COINTELPRO, but these points remain undefined.
The film's approach is sometimes repetitive and not strictly chronological but generally effective. The tone is even-handed to a point, though one might infer sympathy for the Underground. The ambiguity resonates with the stirrings of self-styled American freedom fighters (Oklahoma City is mentioned); though one former member admits that the Underground failed to spark widespread revolution, she notes that it paved the way for future white resistance. Green and Siegel put together a chilling montage of the vapidity of the '80s (including one-time protester Jane Fonda leading her workout video) before summarizing where the interviewees are now: some dejected, some confused, but few willing to trade their experiences.