You see old footage of Weathermen leaders justifying anti-war violence with fatuous phrases like "If they hadn't dug it before they better dig it now," while hippie chicks giggle over the latest bombing of a U.S. government institution. And you can feel the whole country standing up en masse and moving sharply to the right.
Born in 1969, a time of worldwide upheavals, the Weathermen took their name from the Bob Dylan lyric, "You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows," and were, to the anti-war movement, what the Black Panthers were to the civil-rights movement: its radical, violent offspring. Like the Panthers, they wore sunglasses and affected cool; unlike the Panthers, they weren't.
Fools or heroes? The documentary takes a schizophrenic approach.
In October 1969, the Weather Underground organized "Days of Rage" and expected thousands to rampage through an upscale Chicago neighborhood; they got hundreds and found themselves isolated politically. In 1971, they planned to bomb a Fort Dix noncommissioned officers' dance but blew up themselves instead when their bomb short-circuited in their New York townhouse.
It's only in the second half of the documentary, in a quick montage, that we find out how effective the Weathermen actually were.
In 1970 alone, they bombed National Guard headquarters (to protest the Kent State killings), New York police headquarters (to protest police repression), the Harvard Center for International Affairs (the Vietnam War), and the Presidio Army Base in San Francisco (Cuba). In 1971, they bombed the U.S. Capitol. Rep. Gerald Ford is seen sternly surveying the damage.
Suddenly they were the darlings of the radical left. They busted LSD guru Timothy Leary out of jail; they evaded the FBI. Then, just as suddenly, they were anachronisms. Nixon resigned, our involvement in Vietnam ended, and they began to turn themselves in. They were 30 now and starting families. What do you bomb in 1977? A movie theater showing "Star Wars"?
In interviews throughout, former members of the Weather Underground, including Bernardine Dohrn, Bill Ayers and Mark Rudd, wrestle with their legacy — as do the documentarians. "Whose side are you on?" went the '60s chant, and whose side the documentarians are on is never clear — in a muddy rather than an ambiguous way. Did anyone die from the Weathermen's bombings? We don't find out here.
What also goes unmentioned, sadly, is 9-11. What the Weathermen did small, al-Qaida did large. One feels 9-11's presence, though, in many aspects of the film, and never more so than in former Weatherman Brian Flanagan's mea culpa, "When you feel that you have right on your side, you can do some horrific things."
Erik Lundegaard: firstname.lastname@example.org