THE WEATHER UNDERGROUND
My baby-boomer memories include a chemistry class at Goddard College with John Froines, one of the Chicago 7, and an all-night party where Froines introduced his students to Abbie Hoffman, David Dellinger and William Kunstler. It was 1971, and the party was for black pundit Dick Gregory, who had earlier in the evening instructed a snickering audience in how to recognize undercover FBI agents who might be lurking on our Plainfield, Vermont campus--look for spit-shine sandals, he said. Gregory handed out photos of his oatmeal bowl to show how much it resembled the surface of the moon; the moon landing, he claimed, was a conspiracy to raise money for the military-industrial complex. Conversation turned to the Weathermen bombings, to Bernadine Dohrn and Mark Rudd. For the New Yorkers there that evening, the 11th Street townhouse explosion the previous year was still a vivid memory. It had forced the Weathermen underground.
Today, no one under 50 is likely to remember "Pig" Judge Hoffman, who presided over the Chicago trial. Few tourists who visit Washington Square Park notice the incongruity of the modern 11th Street townhouse in the otherwise orderly row of 19th-century buildings, nor do they know of the three Weathermen killed there. The 1960s is remembered as an era of indulgence by the right and one of idealism by the left; the SDS and their splinter group, the Weathermen, are barely footnotes, yet the string of protest bombings executed by the Weathermen put Bernadine Dohrn, one of its leaders and the group's lawyer, at the top of the FBI's most-wanted list. It is this persistent gap in America's recounting of that era which served as the inspiration for post-baby-boomer filmmakers Sam Green, 36, and Bill Siegel, 40, when in 1998 they set out to make their documentary, The Weather Underground.
Through photographs, archival footage, and interviews with Dohrn, Rudd and other Weathermen, the filmmakers build a compelling case for the effect of the radical left on late 20th-century American politics. Their uncomfortable comparisons between the social unrest of the Weathermen era and the turmoil and discontent of the early 21st century, especially the recent worldwide protests against the war in Iraq, illustrate the relative dearth of idealism in the contemporary zeitgeist. It is only in Dohrn and one of her compatriots, Naomi Jaffe, that Green and Siegel discover the burning embers of revolutionary reform. When Jaffe is asked if she has any regrets about her involvement with the Weathermen, she says that she didn't like having to cut her long hair when she went underground--an attempt to alter her appearance--and, oh, yes, parting with her extended Jewish family wasn't easy. Dohrn, who now runs a juvenile-justice program at Northwestern University, radiates defiance; it's apparent in her demeanor, in her flashing eyes, and in the unrepenting way she speaks about her past.
The narrative voice of The Weather Underground is feminine--mostly Lili Taylor's--a refreshing departure from the usual male voice of authority. No doubt the filmmakers, like the audience, could not escape the ennui of the male Weathermen and SDS leaders--Bill Ayers, Mark Rudd, David Gilbert, Brian Flanagan and Todd Gitlin--whose voices are raised in a collective dirge at the funeral of their youthful radicalism. The women remain warriors; Jaffe, who now heads a foundation that supports women's causes, says she would do it all again. Some may find that remark chilling in this age of terrorism, especially since the Weathermen bombed over a dozen official buildings, including the Capitol, but the filmmakers clearly do not. In the women's voices, they hear a tocsin, the call to a new revolution, wholly and decidedly aboveground.
Portrait of a struggling, stubborn folksinger in 1961 New York is a Coen Brothers triumph, and one of the year’s best films. More »
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