DVD Review of The Weather Underground

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 12/16/05


  It was about a year and a half ago that I first saw the film The Weather Underground on PBS’s American Experience show. I was struck by how idiotic supposedly intelligent people were, and even more so that many of these convicted and/or admitted felons who have found tenured positions in Academia. In rewatching the film, and listening to commentaries by both the filmmaker and the husband and wife terrorists, Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn, it amazes me how utterly out of touch extremists can be. Yes, George W.  Bush has been a failure as a President, and so was Lyndon Baines Johnson, and Richard Nixon was probably the most reprobative piece of bilge to ascend to the Presidency, yet to listen to these people speak, you would feel that it’s ok to murder and bomb wantonly. The rationales are astounding- Ayers declaims that to not be political is a political act that sympathizes with the oppressors. In other words, he’s saying that, ala George W. Bush, you’re either with us or against us. This is why I loathe extremism on either side- it’s the same damn thing. Disagree with an animal rights activist or an anti-abortionist and they’ll bomb your clinic!

  The DVD commentary by director Sam Green is little better. He provides nothing of substance, in an attempt to be evenhanded, yet clearly his sympathies lie with the terrorists. He states that they, at least, were for the right causes- i.e.- Left Wing. He says that he and his co-director Bill Siegel, were always fascinated with these types. Why? It’s a sincere question. They were spoiled white suburbanites who lived in a delusive fantasy world, and have subsequently done little of value with their lives- entering Academia (Ayers, Dohrn, and math professor Mark Rudd), owning a saloon (Brian Flanagan), and being a ‘political activist’ (Naomi Jaffe) are not what most would consider lives well spent.

  The film itself is a mish-mash. Not a bad film, it is not good, either. It gives little context to why these people would give up the privileges most poor people, black or white, strive for. Could it be, like many bad artists, they believe nobility is to be found in struggle? Ask anyone who’s really struggled and they’ll consider that view naďve, at best, and pornographic, at worst. The Weather Underground started out in 1969 as a splinter group from the Students for  Democratic Society (SDS) called the Weathermen (taken from the lyrics of a Bob Dylan song: ‘you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows’. They started bombing buildings as ‘acts of protest’, yet were ridiculed by the Black Panthers as a bunch of spoiled white kids who made things tougher for them because they were unskilled. The Weathermen were also reviled by mainstream liberal and anti-war groups as making their points of view seem unpalatable to the moderates in the nation. Ironically, they were seen basically as useful idiots by President Nixon and the Right Wing.

  Then, a failed bombmaking attempt led to the deaths of several members, and coupled with the murders of several radical black activists, such as murderer George Jackson Chicago Black Panther leader Fred Hampton, the group felt a need to go ‘underground’. They bombed some more, until most of them hit their early thirties, then gave themselves up. Fortunately for them, many of the charges against many of them were dropped because of the illegal methods used by the FBI, but all these years later not a one of them has the guts to utterly denounce their methods and ideologies. Worse, the film definitely sides with the terrorists because, of course, they were Leftists, and on the side of good- really, Left is good! Thus, there is no real tough questioning of the terrorists. Siegel, in fact, was quoted as stating, ‘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.’ In short, instead of being rightly demonized along with the Osama bin Ladens, Timothy McVeighs, and Eric Rudolphs of the world, they are treated as mere failures in a noble cause. In fact, Green, at one point in his commentary, states that he didn’t even want to know all the details about the group, lest find out too much that might disillusion him. Thus, even convicted murderer David Gilbert, whose crime of murder occurred after the breakup of the Weather Underground, and with another radical group, is called a great and humane human being and ‘political prisoner’ by Ayers, in his film commentary. How delusional can these people, filmmakers and terrorists be? Here’s how delusional: several of the terrorists wistfully proclaim, that they were close to ‘overthrowing the capitalist system and putting in something more humane.’ Feel free to chuckle. Let me add this, too: Che Guevara was a humanitarian. That he was also a mass murderer, well- let’s not nitpick!

  Unlike, say ex-Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, in The Fog Of War, only a few of the group seem to have gained any wisdom. Rudd states, ‘I cherished my hate as a badge of moral superiority’, and Flanagan seems to rightly see how close he came to being bin Laden, when he states, ‘If you think that you have the moral high ground, that's a very dangerous position and you can do some really dreadful things.’ A still bitter ex-SDS leader named Todd Gitlin also perfectly nails the ethical morass of the Weathermen, and much of the most radicalized Left, when he states, ‘They were ready to be mass murderers, the same as Hitler, Stalin, and Mao, and their grand projects for the reform of all humanity. In the face of that, ordinary life was dispensable.’
  As a film, there are several clever sequences of recreations, that Green recounts well in the DVD commentary, and the lack of funding for the film worked in its favor in at least one aspect. Failing to have the money for classic 1960s rock songs, the film used eerie avant-garde music, which adds to the delusion of the ideas many of the talking heads provide. Overall, the film is a so-so concoction, and the comments add little. A half hour interview with murderer David Gilbert adds little insight, save that the man still has not gotten his act together, and an art film on the terrorists adds even less insight. Overall, the bonus features are rather meager. This film breaks no new ground on the times, nor artistically, and just underscores that the folks involved in any terror movement are not good people, despite their protestations to the contrary. If only Mystery Science Theater 3000 were still around to lampoon this film there might be a good commentary available. Alack, the lack!

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