In broad terms it’s the story of a group of American student anti-war activists in the late 1960s who – frustrated at the failure of mass peaceful protests to have any effect on stopping the Vietnam war – form The Weather Underground who use militant, terrorist activity to overthrow the US government through violent action and the bombing of targeted buildings.
Through interviews with many of the leaders of the Weathermen in the present day and an array of footage from the era, the film charts the history of the political movement. From its beginnings at the end of the 1960s, through some tumultuous events in the 1969/70 period, its move underground in the early 1970s where it became infamous (or famous depending on your point of view) for bombing many government/authority buildings that it saw had committed crimes against the population. But as one ex-member says during the film, that tactic eventually became played out and the movement begins to fracture during the mid-1970s (especially after The Vietnam War ended) and by the end of the 1970s it had dissolved.
That in itself isn’t particularly incredible as the 1960s & 1970s were a time of great political unrest in America and many radical movements and parties became prominent.
But it’s the passage of time and what became of these leaders of the movement that are its remarkable aspect. Take the story of probably the most central person in the documentary, Berandine Dohrn. In footage from 1969, we see her as a political firebrand who is totally willing to sacrifice her life for the cause of a militant overthrow of the government. Then we see footage of her giving herself up to the authorities in 1980 after spending a decade ‘underground’. While she spouts similar rhetoric as she did a decade before, in her face you see a defeated person who realises her political activity has run into a dead end.
And when she is interviewed for this documentary in the early 2000s, she was in the middle of a lengthy tenure as an Associate Professor at a University Law School. The transformation of someone from being a totally hostile outsider and opponent of capitalist American society to having a comfortable, respected existence within it is remarkable to see.
Indeed many of the ex-Weathermen interviewed seem rather amazed themselves they actually had such a radical mindset during the 60s/70s. It is these contradictions and changes in outlook in these people that is one of the central topics the film explores with great sharpness and perceptiveness.
The story and people involved are remarkable enough that it would be virtually impossible not to make an interesting documentary out of it. But thanks to the superb work of co-directors Sam Green & Bill Siegel, this film goes well above expectations.
They avoid the trap that so many films and documentaries have in using visual and aural clichés to convey the late 1960s era that have been used hundreds of times. Instead it uses judicious editing, invaluable news footage and its own unique soundtrack to convincingly create what it was to be like living in late 1960s America. It also doesn’t shy away from showing some brutal, violent images of murdered people in various incidents – not for shock value – to underline the context with which how students could be driven to join an organisation like The Weathermen
Due to the subject matter and skill by the filmmakers, the film brings up a wide array of topics for discussion: what were the political alternatives for The Weather Underground? What are the lessons for people and political movements today can take from that political movement? Indeed the currency of the film’s issues came up several years after its release during the 2008 US Presidential campaign due to Barack Obama’s links with Weatherman leader Bill Ayers (husband of Bernadine Dohrn).
Upon its release in 2004, ‘The Weather Underground’ achieved a fair degree of critical success and was nominated for that year’s Best Documentary feature. All the critical kudos is deserved and it is not only one of the best documentaries of recent times, but one of the best films of any kind of the 2000s.