“I think the Vietnam War made us all a little crazy,” one now middle-aged radical muses toward the end of The Weather Underground. That modest observation will surely, mutatis mutandis, be made of 9-11, but Sam Green and Bill Siegel’s often gripping documentary manages to evoke the particular quality and extent of the madness that possessed many Americans during the course of the longest foreign war in the nation’s history.
Perhaps you had to be there. A grizzled Mark Rudd, once among the best known of Weathermen, today a math teacher at a New Mexico community college, remarks that these days his students think he’s from another planet. At its best, The Weather Underground illustrates what the French call a mentalité—a unifying state of mind that characterizes a social formation over an extended period of time. For the youthful terrorists and outlaws of the Weather Underground, that mentalité was founded on an overwhelming moral disgust with the undeclared war in Vietnam, a loathing of their own perceived race and class privilege, and a sense of impending worldwide revolution.
In the aftermath of Richard Nixon’s November 1968 election, Students for a Democratic Society—a campus organization that claimed 100,000 members and, according to one Fortune poll, a million sympathizers—moved from opposition to the war to fantasizing the overthrow of the capitalist system. The Weather Underground opens with a flashback to the annus horribilis 1969, and then SDS national secretary Bernadine Dohrn denouncing our Amerika as “the most violent society that has ever existed.” The filmmakers pull together a montage of graphic, still-shocking Vietnam carnage. As SDS split and fissured, the splinter called Weathermen launched itself at what was thought to be the soft underbelly of the American beast—smashing, fighting, and otherwise demonstrating their displeasure by running amok in downtown Chicago for four “Days of Rage.”
The filmmakers interview Dohrn’s longtime comrade Bill Ayers as he wanders the rampage route as it is today, nostalgically clutching what seems to be a baseball bat. The failure of the Days to bring out Chicago youth taught the radicals how marginal they really were, he says. Their group turned “grim” and “determined” and cultish. “Smashing monogamy” became a priority. (The movie passes lightly over the lunatic December ’69 conclave wherein Dohrn declared her solidarity with the Manson Family—but where did that neat Weather orgy footage come from?)
Mainly, the Weathermen wanted to bring the war home. They believed that “all [white] Americans were legitimate targets for attack” and sought to make the U.S. unlivable as long as the war continued. From a Leninist perspective, their politics defined infantile leftism. The “Days of Rage” were denounced as “Custeristic” by Fred Hampton, the soon to be police-murdered Black Panther leader whom Weather folks idealized. As Dostoyevsky protagonists, however, the sect peaked early—with the mind-boggling explosion of their West 11th Street townhouse “bomb factory.” The survivors went underground (a “parallel universe,” one recalls, which often involved hiding in plain sight) and backed off from the use of pure terror. They did, however, manage to bomb an amazing succession of government installations without anyone ever getting seriously injured.
Although mainly talking heads, The Weather Underground has a pleasingly rough-hewn quality. The contextual material is often unfamiliar and the grim 8mm street footage that accompanies some interviews is highly evocative. That the movie is as engrossing as it is goes with the territory. Todd Gitlin, representative of an earlier, more rational SDS, shows up to make the Bonnie and Clyde connection. But that glamorous equation was promoted by the radicals themselves even before they bailed from shared social reality to live out a certain movie scenario. The Weatherists may not have been taken seriously as the vanguard of a youth revolution, but these righteous outlaws did have an appreciative audience. “We didn’t do it but we dug it,” some face-painted chick tells newsmen after the Weather bombing of a Capitol men’s room. The 1970 liberation of the jailed Timothy Leary, shown here mugging for the camera in a leather Lenin cap, was another fabulous publicity stunt. (The Weather dudes were interviewed by Emile de Antonio for his 1976 documentary, Underground; he would later recall them as shrewd Hollywood types.)
The Weather Underground show continued bombing into the mid ’70s. But in the ensuing “new normality”—signified in the documentary by Jane Fonda’s workout videos, though actually more connected to Jimmy Carter’s amnesty for draft resisters—a number of Weatherites surfaced. Most of these are in the movie and many remain committed community activists, although David Gilbert is shown serving a life sentence in prison for his part in the disastrous Brinks robbery of 1981—like the assassination of John Lennon, a final spasm of ’60s madness. The Brinks job, which also involved the unmentioned Kathy Boudin among others, is barely acknowledged. But what’s more frustrating is the filmmakers’ unwillingness to ask their subjects any really tough questions and a coy disinclination to discuss how the Weather Underground managed to function.
Perhaps the interviewees are still protecting their associates. In any case, one leaves with barely a clue as to how this group was able to orchestrate a successful string of terror bombings. When last seen, Rudd is still wondering what to do with his knowledge of how America works.
“Left Out in the Cold: Weather Underground and ’60s Politics” by Tom Smucker