When The Revolution Was Televised: A new documentary looks back at the Weather Underground, the Great American Terrorists  

By Will Blythe

June 12 —  Had you contracted sleeping sickness in 1973, and awoken 30 years later, you might be excused for wondering where in the world the America you knew had gone. Especially if you believed, as did many young people and some of their sympathizers (Charles Reich, Herbert Marcuse), that we were on the verge of a new American revolution in government and consciousness. Everything would seem reversed.  

  NOW WE HAVE A military riding high in public esteem after victory in the Middle East; then we had military in disgrace after failure in Vietnam. Now we have a press distrusted by the public and besmirched by scandal; then we had a press exalted as saviors of the Republic and an inspiration to thousands of aspiring Woodsteins. Now we have the Weather Channel; then we had the Weather Underground.
        Ah, yes, the Weather Underground: in these days of genuine terror, the name summons up as much a kind of bell-bottomed nostalgia as it does fear. The Weathermen (it is a marker of how the times were still achangin’ then that the group also included women) took their name from a lyric—”You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows”—in Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” They were a small militant organization of mostly middle-class youth who split off from the Students for a Democratic Society in 1969, radicalized to the point of fury by the Vietnam War. Their methods placed them somewhere between pranksters and terrorists, but their announced intentions were considerable: the violent overthrow of the U.S. government. The exploits of the Weathermen—and the former members’ reflections on those exploits, now some 30 years later—is at the center of a fascinating new documentary, “The Weather Underground,” which has just premiered in New York, and is scheduled to open nationwide in July.
        “The Weather Underground” is a potent time capsule of a movie, recreating the emotional temper of the period far better than explicating its historical complexities. You can get a contact jangle from the documentary’s mix of apocalyptic anxiety and utopian expectation. It positively reeks of tear gas and pot smoke.
        The directors, Sam Green and Bill Siegel, achieve this film-induced flashback partly by liberal use of Vietnam War-era clips, which often results in a montage of atrocity. Some of it is iconic—the famous footage (usually distilled as an equally memorable photograph) of a South Vietnamese commander casually shooting a Viet Cong prisoner in the head. A napalmed child running down the highway. Then—surely a rare piece of film—there is an astonishing black-and-white sequence of a soldier pumping bullets into a corpse.
        At times, it’s like watching a speeded-up, uncensored newscast of the period—an effect furthered by the appearance of a channel-surfing procession of broadcast anchors—an intense, young Dan Rather (what but his age has changed?), a seigniorial Walter Cronkite reciting the number of American dead so far in the conflict and Tom Brokaw with an ungainly farm boy’s haircut. These bygone moments are underlaid with an ominous electronic score by Dave Cerf and Amy Domingues, a welcome change from the VH1 reflex of fizzing up documentaries with vintage pop songs. How many times must we hear in such a context Buffalo Springfield singing “Stop Children, what’s that sound, everybody look what’s going down?” The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind.
        The movie’s blizzard of TV imagery is appropriate for reasons aside from simply evoking the period. The Weathermen arose from what was probably the first generation of Americans who intuitively knew how to enlarge themselves through television, how to play to—and, with—the camera. They were a photogenic bunch, and there seems to be a twinkle in the their eyes even as they pledge to “bring the war home.” Witness one of the group’s leaders, Bernadine Dohrn, toying winsomely with reporters outside a convention in 1969. Man, was she a babe (and let us be the first to acknowledge the bourgeois taint of that remark), even with that mouth of hers spilling forth agitprop like a mimeograph machine! The Weather Underground made revolution seem like fun. The film presents with an utterly straight face a tape-recorded communiqué in which a spokeswoman for the group—it may be Dohrn—proudly declares that its members can be found where ever “kids are making love, smoking dope and loading guns.” This sure beats a dispatch from Al Qaeda.
Bernadine Dohrn's face was made for TV
       The author Todd Gitlin, a former SDS activist and colleague of the documentary’s subjects, compares the Weathermen’s glamorous leadership to Bonnie and Clyde in the course of issuing a withering critique from the left of his former compatriots. Indeed, the members seem to have acted as if their lives were being filmed—not just by the FBI (which was indeed spying on them), but by the same camera that was so enraptured by Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway in Arthur Penn’s 1967 movie. Though most of the Weathermen began their activist vocations as student organizers at the grass-roots level, they seem, by the late ’60s, to have been fabricating a cause whole cloth out of charisma. That may be one reason—though only one—that their movement gradually petered out in the ’70s when its members disappeared from sight into their safe houses and blue-collar jobs.
        They had created a romantic image of themselves as outlaws—American Che Guevaras—without having to pay for it with blood in the Bolivian jungle. It’s as if they believed the revolutionary movement existed in order for them to test themselves, to see whether they could do the blood spilling of which revolutionaries traditionally had been capable. Mark Rudd, leader of the Columbia University student uprising of 1968, tells of the Weathermen’s “gut check.” “We challenged each other to be more violent,” he tells the filmmakers, “therefore, more revolutionary.” Afflicted with the insecurity of the comfortable and middle-class (as indeed, Che himself had been), they didn’t want to be found lacking. Extreme violence was history’s final exam.
        To their credit, it was an exam they failed. The group seems to have been shocked away from further extremity by discovering that someone could actually die doing this stuff when three of their colleagues perished while making a bomb in the basement of a Greenwich Village brownstone in March 1970. That bomb was intended to kill American servicemen attending a dance at Fort Dix, N.J. Perhaps as a consequence, the Weathermen’s subsequent violence—more than 20 bombings over several years—hurt no one, and appeared largely symbolic, aimed with plenty of warning at government buildings during off-hours.
        “The Weather Underground” offers its subjects an extraordinary chance at self-portraiture in which one of the inadvertent fascinations for viewers is in discerning time’s steady work. Imagine the famous British documentary series, “Seven-Up,” directed by Michael Apted, that follows at seven-year intervals the lives of a group of English citizens, but focused here on aging American radicals. These days, Dohrn, now the head of a juvenile-justice program at Northwestern, comes across a bit inscrutably, self-righteous, steely hard and perhaps unrepentant. She confesses that she found it difficult to give herself up, as she did in 1980. “I still believe in the struggle,” she said then, “the struggle must go on.” Her husband, the former Weatherman Bill Ayers, now a professor of education with whom she had two children while underground, also features prominently in the movie. In one bizarre sequence, which the film, as is its style, treats neutrally, Ayers retraces the route he and his helmeted compatriots took during the Days of Rage rampage in Chicago in 1969, when perhaps 150 Weathermen ran through the streets of the so-called Gold Coast, bashing in plate-glass windows and fighting with Chicago cops. As he strolls down his particular memory lane, Ayers cradles a baseball bat in his hands. Is it a relic of that night? The movie doesn’t say.
        Other subjects look back on those days with a baffled mixture of affection and revulsion. Mark Rudd is one of the most eloquent in his unsparing analysis of the Weatherman project. Thirty years ago, he admits that “I cherished my hate as a badge of moral authority.” Now, a math teacher at a community college in New Mexico, the same helmet of unruly hair flecked with silver, he says “violence doesn’t work” and acknowledges “my mixed feelings—feelings of guilt and shame.” He is joined in his remorse by Brian Flanagan, a former Weatherman, now a bar owner in New York, who seems to have thought long and hard about the ethical deficiencies of the group’s campaign. “If you think you have the moral high ground,” he says, “you can do some really terrible things.”
        Did the Weather Underground accomplish much of anything aside from searing itself into the iconography of an era? And what’s it like for the group’s former members to live with that question every day? The movie is always respectful of its subjects’ ambitions and idealism—in fact, it honors their resilience as tragicomic revolutionaries—but it fails to sufficiently answer those questions. The documentary will probably leave filmgoers with a lingering sense of sadness, at the toll that both life on the American perimeter and years of fierce retrospection have taken on the Weather Underground. And that may be answer enough.
Will Blythe is the former literary editor of Esquire. He edited the book “Why I Write,” now available in paperback from Little Brown.
© 2003 Newsweek, Inc.