Saturday, January 23, 2010

Review: The Weather Underground (2007)

Terrorism was on everyone'e mind this past decade. It began with the attacks of 9/11 and ended with the failed airplane bomb plot on Christmas Day 2009. The award winning documentary, The Weather Underground, is a somber look at a group of 1960s radicals that resorted to violence. Their rage at the government's persecution of the Vietnam War and frustration with ineffective anti-war movement led to go underground and "bring the war home." In time, the Weathermen hoped radicalize all young people, overthrow the government, and inaugurate a new Utopian society. A tall order indeed. The film combined narration, archival footage, and interviews with former members. At the heart of The Weather Underground is the question of how citizens should express dissent with the government and no clear answers are given. Unfortunately, the film rests on the myths of the 1960s and and a not so subtle commentary on the Bush administration (2001-2009)

The Weathermen were a splinter group of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the vanguard of the campus revolts of the 1960s and 1970s. Created in 1962 in Port Huron, Michigan, they advocated for a new "participatory democracy" and non-violent resistance to war and racism. They spoke directly to a younger generation frustrated with the complacency of their parents towards the Cold War and the struggle for Civil Rights. But it was the Vietnam War that defined them. As the war intensified and the draft calls cut into the middle class the anti-war ranks increased. Some members of SDS favored a more confrontational approach towards the government and they broke away to create the Weatherman (they took their name from the Dylan lyric from Subterranean Homesick Blues, "you don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows").

Several figures from the group were interviewed and all have differing views of their past actions. Some have regrets and some do not. From 1969-1975 the Weatherman were responsible for several bombings on government buildings. In 1970, a bomb accidentally went off in Greenwich Village and killed three of its own members. After the incident the group decided to take every precaution to avoid civilian casualties, but they still considered those that disagreed with them complicit with the government. A dangerous line of thinking when one believes they have all the answers, that is a pure terrorist. As the Vietnam War slowly came to an end the Weatherman fell into obscurity.

The film did a fine job of presenting the Weathermen's viewpoint, but is lacking in historical context. They relied on the myths of the 1960s. The first myth is that most young people opposed the war, when in fact most did. More young people went conservative in the 1960s; membership in the conservative student group YAF (Young Americans for Freedom) were higher than SDS. Furthermore, the film gives a superficial depiction of the Vietnam War. It never explains why America was there in the first place, but that it was just a war that most people were against. Another flaw is its depiction of Richard Nixon, showing cherry picked clips with Nixon sounding angry and intolerant. Must every 60s themed film fall back on Nixon as the ultimate bad guy?

At the documentary's heart is the question of dissent in a democratic society. How far should it go? If you disagree with the administration in power, what is the proper course of action? There are no satisfactory answers to those questions, at least I have no answers. From a historical standpoint, America was forged in a violent revolution and rebelling against tyranny is always an admired American trait. Then there was the Civil War (1861-1865), but that was a war to prevent secession, as the South did want to conquer the North. In recent history, there was the 1995 Oklahoma City attacks by a right wing fanatic that despised the government. Dissent is only successful when it has a large following, otherwise they remain on the fringes. Acts of violence on innocent people rarely win people to your cause.

By the end The Weather Underground has the feel of a depressing class reunion. None of them seems too proud of their past actions. One former member, bar owner, Brian Flanagan, regrets his involvement with the group. He sees no honor in the use of violence to make a political point, especially in the wake of 9/11. Others remain committed to various causes and believe that violent change may be necessary. For students or anyone viewing the film, however, perhaps it is better to understand the nature of power before deciding how to dissent. Isn't the entire point of having a democracy?

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