What would drive a peaceful, non-violent student protester to become a bomb maker in a subversive political organization? What ideology would cause an Ivy League college graduate to sever all contact with their family and friends and go into hiding for years, hunted by the FBI? What convinces someone that the U.S. government is their enemy and to fight them by any means necessary? These are some of the questions which are raised and answered by two fascinating documentaries on the same subject – Sam Green and Bill Siegel’s The Weather Underground (2002), which was nominated for an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature, and Emile de Antonio’s infamous Underground (1976).
It seems appropriate during this turbulent, divisive time in American politics to consider what it means to live in a democracy which was initially founded by men who were considered traitors and revolutionaries by their own government in Britain for defying the Loyalist reign and breaking off to create their own form of government. Although we see Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams and others who signed the Declaration of Independence as true patriots now, championing a necessary and just cause, they were seen as dangerous subversives by their enemy at the time. Members of The Weather Underground, a radical left movement of the late sixties that called for the creation of a classless society and “the destruction of US imperialism,” may have also seen themselves as true American patriots during their heyday (1969-1976). But their reputation, at least in the eyes of most people who followed their violent acts and eventual demise under the scrutiny of the major news media, was comparable to that of a gang of terrorists. They were America’s own version of Germany’s Red Army Faction (aka the Baader-Meinhof Group), which waged guerrilla warfare against the West German government around the same time.
The Weather Underground, which was formed by disillusioned members of the SDS (Students for a Democratic Society), took their name from a line in Bob Dylan’s Subterranean Homesick Blues – “You don’t need a weather man to know which way the wind blows” – and first became active during the Chicago riots of October 1969 (known as “Days of Rage”) which was a response to the trial of the Chicago Eight. The Weathermen quickly became notorious for a number of high profile incidents including breaking Timothy Leary out of jail in 1970, the bombing of the U.S. Capitol in March of 1971 and the bombing of the Pentagon in May of 1972.
The movement went underground after March 6, 1970 when a bomb accidentally detonated in a Greenwich Village safe house at 11 West 11th St., killing three members, Diana Oughton, Ted Gold and Terry Robbins. Cathy Wilkinson and Kathy Boudin escaped unharmed before the police arrived. The group had been preparing for the bombing of the Fort Dix U.S. army base when the explosion occurred. For anyone in the vicinity at the time, it must have been traumatic to see this classic brownstone suddenly implode from within by a dynamite blast and then to see a naked Cathy Wilkinson stumble from the smoke and debris and race down the street to the subway (some eyewitness accounts remember this detail). This incident was later appropriated for a scene in the 1980 feature A Small Circle of Friends where Brad Davis’s ex-Harvard student gets involved with a radical underground group as a bomb maker.
Emile de Antonio’s Underground was the first attempt by a documentary filmmaker to present The Weathermen as they saw themselves, not at how they were depicted by the media. Even though the FBI had been completely unsuccessful in capturing the fugitives, de Antonio, due to his connections, was easily able to contact the fugitive members and arrange to make a documentary on them. In fact, the members were well aware of him and certain he was the ideal choice to make this film.
Acting more as an archivist than an interviewer here, de Antonio along with his co-directors, cameraman Haskell Wexler and editor Mary Lampson, simply let five key members of the original group explain themselves and their current situation as fugitives from justice as they film them in a secret location. Since the five Weathermen – Billy Ayers, Kathy Boudin, Bernardine Dohrn, Jeff Jones and Cathy Wilkerson – were wanted by the FBI, their faces are not seen by the filmmakers. Instead we see them from the back or through a curtain or in silhouette. In one long shot, we see them seated before the three filmmakers who are the only ones we can see clearly reflected in a mirror. This limiting visual approach, instead of being monotonous and uncinematic, becomes fascinating as it alternates between archival footage and sparse camera set-ups which demystify these shadowy figures as they tell their own stories.
Once you adjust to the jargon and political rhetoric (this was filmed in 1975, remember), the five fugitives emerge as articulate, politically committed and fallible human beings whose intellect and beliefs were formed by the turbulent period they grew up in. They also sound like people who have been living in a vacuum, cut off from the real world (which they were), and stuck in an endless tape loop of self-justification and irrevocable past decisions. Kathy Wilkinson reveals she became an activist after witnessing police brutality against black protestors at a Woolworth’s in Cambridge, Maryland in 1962. Kathy Boudin grew up in a liberal, progressive family and became radicalized during a visit to Cuba during the overthrow of the Batista regime by Castro’s forces. Another member recalls growing up watching the televised Army-McCarthy hearings of 1954 with her mother as she ironed the clothes. One thing that becomes immediately clear in learning how these former college students became leftist radicals is the constant reference to what was happening around them (via footage of the Attica prison uprising, the Black Panthers, the bombings in Vietnam, Civil Rights marches, the police clubbing students at the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago, the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, etc.).
For anyone who lived through this period, the U.S. government as a fair and just defender and representative of its citizens was more than questionable during President Nixon’s reign from 1969-1974 that included the Watergate break-in that led to his resignation. Peaceful protests during this time could often end in brutal attacks by cops with billy clubs and tear gas. It is this issue that constantly begs the question in both documentaries, how do you fight back against a powerful oppressor without becoming the thing you hate and still strike a blow for human rights and make a positive change in a negative political regime? The Weather Underground decided to use violence to fight violence even though history has taught us that strategy only results in a never ending cycle of retribution from both sides. By 1975, the Weathermen knew this approach was not the answer either.
Billy Ayers states in Underground, “We were arrogant in our behavior. I think it’s also important to put it into a context which is not an apology. And that is that we live in a very decadent society like Russia before the revolution.” By the end of Underground, it is clear that the five fugitives interviewed are not poseurs but firmly believed they were true patriots, attempting to force positive change through any means necessary. They were also still in hiding and de Antonio had great difficulty in distributing his film. According to the DVD liner notes, “The film took a year to surface, a delay due in part to a highly public federal government effort to seize the footage and suppress the film. Together with the American Civil Liberties Union, prominent Hollywood figures, including Warren Beatty, Mel Brooks, Shirley MacLaine, Jack Nicholson, and DGA president Robert Wise led an equally public campaign in support of the filmmakers’ First Amendment rights. Ever the counter-puncher, de Antonio not only took the harassment in stride – he had, after all, been on a FBI watch list since the late 1940s – but treated it as publicity for the film.” His low-tech version of a movie poster bore the tagline “The F.B.I. doesn’t want you to see Underground” and the fugitives’ names were listed as if they were Hollywood stars. In one of the featurettes accompanying Underground, de Antonio remarks with wry amusement that he always found it curious that all of the members of The Weather Underground were white intellectuals who came from upper or middle class families like himself and rarely self-taught activists from the lower or working classes. He also admits that the Weathermen bombed his brother-in-law’s office at one point (the latter worked for the CIA).
Much more comprehensive and slickly produced than Underground (which often looks like a shot-on-the-fly communiqué) is 2002’s The Weather Underground. Sam Green and Bill Siegel’s documentary has the added advantage of juxtaposing the key Weathermen members as they were (from various newsreels and home movie footage) with how they look now and what has happened to them in the years between 1975 (when Underground was filmed) and today. As a primer for young people today on the late sixties-early seventies protest movements and political activism, I can’t think of a better place to start than this.
The political cant of Underground is tempered here with wiser-in-retrospect observations by most of the interviewees. But key to understanding what transformed most of the members into who they became was the Vietnam War. Mark Rudd, who was involved with the 1968 Columbia Student Revolt and later spent seven years “underground” as a Weatherman, explained, “Our country was murdering millions of people..actually the number was between 3 and 5 million people. This revelation was more than we could handle. We didn’t know what to do about it. It was too great a fact…..we had to do whatever we had to do to stop the war.” Naomi Jaffe adds, “You look back at it and see a bunch of crazy young people roving around trying to tell people the revolution is coming. It seems totally insane and in some ways it was totally insane. It fit into a period of revolution in the whole world.” And this is reflected with clips of the “Days of Rage” rioting in Chicago with mirror images of similar riots and uprisings occurring at the same time in other parts of the world such as Mexico, the Congo, France, China, Japan and Cuba. Among the several members interviewed, Bernardine Dohrn and Bill Ayers (who married, had two children together and are still a couple today) make an indelible impression. It is rumored that they provided the inspiration for the fugitive parents on the run in Sidney Lumet’s Running on Empty (1988), who were played by Christine Lahti and Judd Hirsch with River Phoenix as their son. We see an early clip of Dohrn addressing student protestors, “White youth must choose sides now. We must either fight on the side of the oppressed or be on the side of the oppressor.” She seems no less resolute today; she worked as an Associate Professor of Law at Northwestern University School of Law and the Director of Northwestern’s Children and Family Justice Center from 1991-2013 and is currently serving on the boards of various human rights organizations. She and Ayers decided to give themselves up to the authorities in 1980 (Dohrn served a brief jail sentence) and returned to their normal lives, committed to working for social change within the system, instead of outside it. Ayers eventually joined the faculty of the University of Illinois in 1987 and taught in the College of Education. He retired in 2010 and is currently living in the Chicago area with his wife and family.
Not as lucky are David Gilbert and Kathy Boudin, another Weathermen couple who after the organization fell apart created the RATF (Revolutionary Armed Task Force). Both of them incurred jail sentences for their participation and involvement in a Brinks armored car robbery that went awry in Nyack, New York in 1981, resulting in the shooting deaths of two police officers. Gilbert is currently serving a life sentence in prison though Boudin was parolled in 2003 (Dohrn and Ayers became the legal guardian of Gilbert Boudin’s son while the couple were serving time).
Probably the biggest surprise in The Weather Underground comes at the end when we learn that Brian Flanagan, who participated in some of the Weathermen bombings, appeared on the game show “Jeopardy” where he won $23,000! He also opened a bar in Manhattan called Night Café (it closed in 2007) and of all the former Weathermen interviewed in the film seems the most bitter and remorseful, “When you feel you have right on your side, you can do some horrific things.” If I was a film professor, I’d design a film course around this whole amazing period of change and rebellion and program documentaries such as Howard Alk’s powerful 1971 film The Murder of Fred Hampton, Chris Marker and Francois Reichenbach’s The Sixth Face of the Pentagon (1968), Haskell Wexler’s Introduction to the Enemy (1974), Cinda Firestone’s Attica (1974), Emile de Antonio’s In the Year of the Pig (1968), and Henry Hampton’s entire PBS series Eyes on the Prize (1987) about the American Civil Rights Movement. Real food for thought and dialogue. And just for contrast, program some of the Hollywood movies which co-opted and fictionalized this period in ways that often trivialized it like The Strawberry Statement (1970), The Revolutionary (1970) with Jon Voight, and Stanley Kramer’s laughable R.P.M. (1970) with Anthony Quinn as a liberal college professor who’s sleeping with graduate student Ann-Margret. He becomes a mediator in a campus takeover by radicals similar to the Columbia University revolt. By the way, Attorney General William Barr was a student at Columbia in 1968 and he was on the side of the law, defending the university from his more radical classmates.
The Weather Underground was released on DVD by Docurama in May 2004 and may still be available from some online sellers. The extras are particularly compelling and include commentary From Former Weathermen Bernardine Dohrn and Bill Ayers, the Filmmaker Commentary, the Original Weathermen Audio Communiques, a bonus Film on Former Weatherman – David Gilbert: A Lifetime of Struggle and other features. Underground is featured in the four disc DVD set Emile de Antonio: The Films of the Radical Saint from Homevision which was released in July 2008 and also includes In the Year of the Pig, Millhouse: A White Comedy and Mr. Hoover and I. At this time, Underground is still not available as a single disc on any format and due to the film’s controversial nature, I don’t expect to see it made available as a DVD/Blu-ray re-release anytime in the near future. Other websites of interest: