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The Weather Underground (2002)

March 24th, 2007 · No Comments

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Academy Award nominated documentary directed by Sam Green and Bill Siegel traces the rise and fall of the Weather Underground, the militant faction of the Students for a Democratic Society. From 1970 to 1980, the Weathermen conducted a series of mostly bloodless bombings against government institutions in the United States. Their goal was the violent overthrow of the government.

Many members of the SDS felt that non-violent protest had done little to stop the war in Vietnam. In 1969, a faction calling themselves the Weathermen took control of the organization. These included some of the stars of the student left: Bernadine Dorhn, a lawyer and national secretary of SDS, and Mark Rudd, famed for leading demonstrations that shut down Columbia University in 1968.

The Weathermen wanted to make the Vietnam War visible inside the United States. They staged what they hoped would be a huge confrontation with the police called “The Days of Rage.” In Chicago, only 250 kids showed up. They rampaged through the Gold Coast area, smashing windows, but only marginalized themselves with militants like the Black Panthers, who denounced the group.

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The Weathermen trained themselves to use guns and explosives, but were unable to decide how far they should go. A collective in New York led by Terry Robbins plotted to set off a bomb at a non-commissioned officer’s ball at Fort Dix. A short circuit in the wiring exploded the bomb prematurely, killing three members of the group and destroying their townhouse on West 11th Street.

The FBI started taking the Weathermen seriously, and its members fled underground. The group reached the conclusion that they had made an error in New York. They would not unleash indiscriminate violence against the people. From that point forward, they took measures to make sure no one was hurt in their bombings.

The Weathermen bombed the State Corrections Department in San Francisco. They bombed the National Guard headquarters, and the U.S. Capitol. They broke Timothy Leary out of prison and spirited him to Algeria. For a moment in time, the Weather Underground had their finger on the pulse of the growing counter culture.

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But with the end of the Vietnam War, and the Weathermen’s cause irrelevant, some in the group felt they should come into the open. By the end of ’70s, most had turned themselves in. Ironically, almost none did prison time when it became clear how the FBI had broken the law in pursuing the group.

A somber tone is evident throughout The Weather Underground. The present day interviews with former members of the group show them all haunted by ghosts to one degree or another. By taking the moral high ground, they enabled themselves to commit acts none of them are proud of today, and each seem inflicted by a form of post-traumatic stress disorder.

The archival footage – from network news, to handheld protest film, to random 16mm film of the period – immerses us in the 1970s, and the documentary is acutely factual about the state of the union at that point in time. The film shows how violence – even in the name of stopping violence – poisons its perpetrators. The subject matter is heavy, but this is an extremely well made documentary. The subtle narration is provided by actress Lili Taylor and by audio artist Pamela Z.

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Tags: Documentary

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