The Weather Underground

The Weather Underground (2002) movie poster

(2002) dir. Sam Green, Bill Siegel
viewed: 01/21/08

I’ve long had a ranging interest in the politicized and violent movement that The Weather Underground represented.  Apparently, I have a semi-distant relative who had been involved at some level in the Underground, and though it wasn’t often spoken of, it had been noted that his visits with family often wound up getting documented by the FBI.  I never met him and I don’t think that he was one of the primaries focused on in this documentary.

Looking back into the 1960’s and early 1970’s, the volatility of American culture, identity, national and personal, was literally exploding across the map.  I think, even for my generation, born in that time, has a hard time fully understanding the true zeitgeist of the era.  It makes the dismissal of pacifism that The Weathermen endorsed harder to appreciate.  Perhaps even especially now, in which such action would quickly been deemed as terrorist.  The radical movement of the time fit into the time but certainly represented a far step away from the larger liberal movements.  Even the Black Panthers issued statements that they were not aligned with the Weathermen, though the Weathermen certainly liked to believe otherwise.

This documentary interviews a lot of the primary leaders of the group, a group made up of entirely upper middle class white college students, whose passions for change became inflamed particularly in response to the Vietnam War and the apparent lack of effect of pacifism and political rallying that the SDS, from which they emerged, had endorsed as attempts for change.  Their real radicalism is the endorsement of violence to effect the change, planning riots and placing bombs, and while they never ended up killing anyone (except accidentally a couple of their own members in an accidental explosion), they certainly had originally planned to.

My reaction is an oddly mixed one.  The Vietnam War was a brutal, visceral novelty of a crisis for America, with bloody, gruesome images broadcast on television nightly.  Contextually, it’s easy to understand why reaction would be so visceral in return.  Today, America is in a War/occupation that in some ways is even more criminal and wrong, and the brutality is highly different, but still there.  There is a huge amount of apathy in comparison, perhaps borne out of the changes in culture…who knows?  Television news, of course, has become denuded of value.  Reporting on television has moved to a 24/7 model, filled with commentators, played for ratings, and manipulated by their corporate engines that fund them.  The media is amazingly lacking in integrity.  Does that add to the apathy?

We are also of a post-Vietnam War era.  Lessons learned include that of continuing to support the members of the armed forces whether or not one supports the goverment’s decisions to deploy them.  But we are also in a world in which a major military quagmire becomes “our generation’s Vietnam”.  The reality and history of the time, whether really understood or simply vaguely known, has influenced and changed our culture and perspective.

And the use of violence, which even back in the day of The Weather Underground was not truly embraced, is now perceived in a post-9/11 lens in which terrorism has become the brand of evil.  The Underground were terrorists, by our current definitions.  Motivated by true belief in change and pure frustration with their ability to bring it about, they started in a place of good.  Their methods, their ideological justifications, are difficult to comprehend.

The documentary, though well-praised elsewhere, somehow doesn’t feel completely right.  Its tone is one of attempted objectivity, while letting the now middle-aged, graying primary players in the group speak openly about their actions and motivations as well as their regrets.  I kind of wish that I could have watched this with my dad, who because of being in Wisconsin at the time of these events (and my birth) had an interest in this deeper than average, though with whom I never got to speak of it specifically.

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