THE WEATHER UNDERGROUND
 

Directed by Sam Green and Bill Siegel. USA. 2002.


Talking Pictures alias talkingpix.co.uk
 
 


 
 

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By the late 1960s, the undeclared war in Vietnam had dragged on for four years despite assurances from our political leaders that we had turned the corner. While massive protest marches brought the issue to the attention of millions, they did little to stop the war. By the early 1970s, Richard Nixon was President, the war had escalated to Laos and Cambodia, protesting students were murdered at Kent State, over 30,000 Americans and countless more Vietnamese were dead and there was no end in sight. Impatient with non-violence and radicalized by the continually escalating casualty count and the deafness shown by political leaders, more militant groups such as The Weathermen and Black Panthers began to emerge. 

The Weathermen (later The Weather Underground), a radical faction of the SDS (Students for a Democratic Society), waged a small-scale war against the US government during the 1970s that included bombing of the Pentagon and the Capitol buildings, breaking Timothy Leary out of prison, and evading a nationwide FBI manhunt. Nominated for an Academy Award, directors Sam Green and Bill Siegel's compelling documentary, The Weather Underground, candidly explores the rise and fall of the protest group over a six year period as former members speak about what that drove them to "bring the war home" and landed them on the FBIs ten most wanted list. Though tough questions were not asked, it is nonetheless a balanced and engrossing documentary that puts the last serious student movement in this country into historical perspective without either romanticizing or trivializing it. 

Using FBI photographs, news accounts, archival war footage and interviews with Weathermen, SDS leaders, and FBI agents, the documentary explores the limits of protest in a free society and the odds faced by those confronting state and corporate power. Included are scenes of napalm bombing in Vietnam, the murder of Black leaders Fred Hampton and George Jackson, and excerpts of talks by President Nixon. The documentary contains interviews with seven of the original Weathermen, all White, middle class, and well educated: Mark Rudd, Bernardine Dohrn, Bill Ayers, Brian Flanagan, Naomi Jaffe, Laura Whitehorn and David Gilbert. These were not weekend hippies or armchair activists but people so committed they cut themselves off from family and friends for nearly a decade. 

While the movement began by targeting all (White) Americans, after the explosion of a homemade bomb in Greenwich Village, NY in 1970 killed three of their members, they determined that no one should die as a result of their direct action and no one did. In spite of their belief that civil disobedience was the only alternative, the radicalism of the group alienated many of the people they were trying to convert and forced them to go underground, eventually surrendering to the FBI. Today most are still active in professional capacities in support of these ideals and still convinced of the evils of the capitalist system and the need for genuine democracy. 

While their acts can be understood on the basis that it was a time of worldwide revolution and by the failure of marches on Washington to stop the escalation of the war, questions as to whether or not their tactics were effective are still being debated. If nothing else, they exposed the FBI's sinister CointelPro program, an attempt to infiltrate and destroy left wing organizations. Though today the goal of a truly just and humane society seems farther away than ever, as director Siegel pointed out referring to The Weather Underground, "It's clear they didn't have the entire answer, but their impulse that the world can be a more progressive, humane place is worth considering. They made huge mistakes but also had an impulse that things needed to change." The impetus for that change is still alive.

Howard Schumann
 
 
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