Notes From the Underground

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 15, 2003; Page WE33

THEY HAVE weathered, almost Mount Rushmore-like faces: Bernardine Dohrn, Bill Ayers and Mark Rudd. Without even listening to their words, you can read auspicious histories in their middle-aged faces. What they did in their youth -- the terrible follies and short-lived glories -- is the intriguing subject of "The Weather Underground," a documentary about a social protest group that literally declared war on the United States government.

At a time when Americans were dying by the tens of thousands in the Vietnam War, Dohrn, Ayers, Rudd and many others concluded that peaceful protests were not having the desired effect. It was time to fight fire with fire. Breaking ranks with their existing political group, the nonviolent Students for a Democratic Society, they formed the Weathermen. Named for Bob Dylan's lyric "you don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows," they vowed to "bring the war home" to the federal government.

Their declaration of war was in response to the violence in Vietnam and to racism at home. After all, this was also the time of the Kent State massacre, the killings of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., Robert Kennedy and Malcolm X, and the FBI's bloody assassination of Black Panther Fred Hampton.

But under the leadership of mostly upper-class white kids, the breakaway movement was mainly a tragic, disaster-prone endeavor as the Weathermen conducted guerilla-style bombings around the country, targeting government and other establishment buildings (including the U.S. Capitol). Although they took great pains to ensure those buildings were empty of people, they soon became pariahs to more people than they bargained for.

After three members were killed in New York while trying to build a bomb, they went underground. And then there were the ill-fated "Days of Rage," when a crowd of Weathermen and supporters launched a violent attack on public property in Chicago in 1969. These and other actions pushed them into the virtual lunatic fringe in terms of public opinion.

SDS founder Todd Gitlin (also interviewed in the film) felt the Weathermen usurped the SDS's organizational machinery to lead a doomed, dangerous movement with "kindergarten ideas." And the Black Panthers, a radical group the Weathermen claimed to be fighting for, issued public statements against them.

There were some Pyrrhic successes: They managed to break drug guru Timothy Leary out of prison, and when they were forced to go underground, they successfully evaded one of the largest FBI manhunts in history.

But for their uncompromising idealism, they paid the price of Rip Van Winkle. Emerging after years of hiding (when they surrendered, individual by individual, to federal authorities in the late 1980s and 1990s), they returned to an America that had long since passed them by. Now, in the blighted wake of the Sept. 11 tragedies, they find themselves cast into an even more damning light. What remains -- and what makes this movie so poetically rich -- is their resignation to this. Dohrn, who now heads a program for juvenile justice at Northwestern University, is still passionate and unapologetic about her years with the Weathermen, as are Ayers (her husband), David Gilbert (who's serving a life sentence for fatal armed robbery), Naomi Jaffe and other activists. But even they see the gray in a time that they once considered morally black-and-white.

No matter what your view of the protest movement of the 1960s, Sam Green and Bill Siegel's film is a fascinating window into American political history. It's about the courage, foolishness, recklessness, absurdity, sincerity, pretentiousness, misplaced idealism and sanctimoniousness among the militant left and the right. And like the Weathermen and other contemporaries interviewed in the film, you can appreciate the bittersweet vision of hindsight. This is one of the most thought-provoking documentaries of recent times.

© 2003 The Washington Post Company