A lot of people believe America lost its innocence on September 11, 2001. Things that happened before September 11 immediately faded into the soft, golden hue of a simpler time that, in hindsight, we'd taken for granted. But keep venturing back and you'll find it wasn't that long ago when America had its innocence blown to smithereens. In the long history of the world gone mad, post 9/11 has nothing on America in the late '60s and early '70s. Forget the Forrest Gump soundtrack and the great pastel fashions, this was a time of staggering violence, fierce paranoia and homegrown terrorism. A time when both grass roots activists and presidential administrations believed in the possibility of a full-scale American revolution.
There's a moment in the riveting new documentary The Weather Underground that captures that fearful and giddy anarchy. Having helped galvanize a generation of activists raised on Civil Rights and spurred by the war in Vietnam, Mark Rudd remembers going to Chicago in the summer of 1968 fully expecting to be joined by hundreds of thousands of fellow protesters in what they’d already dubbed The Days of Rage. But when they looked over their shoulders, the leaders of the militant left saw only a few hundred followers, and the first night of the revolution was reduced to spastic vandalism and ugly police confrontations. Rudd recalls the disorienting aftermath: the activists either had to admit they were wrong, or they had to plunge even deeper into the abyss. The people who became The Weather Underground, America’s best known terrorist cell, chose the latter. That Mark Rudd, today a math teacher at a New Mexico community college, can tell disbelieving students that he once plotted the violent overthrow the American government is something of a theme to this conflicted and emotionally complicated film.
Filmmakers Sam Green and Bill Siegel have created a smart, sobering account that manages to find fresh relevance in the overanalyzed turmoil of the 1960s. While the Weathermen may have been the best known American terrorists, that doesn’t mean most Americans know about them, or can even conceive the conditions that created pipe bombers and fugitives out of college educated white kids. Green and Siegel let the Weathermen and women speak for themselves, and they are a clear-eyed and articulate bunch, including former radical chic poster girl Bernardine Dohrn and Bill Ayers, who somehow manage to remain husband and wife today. David Gilbert, who exudes the guileless pleasantry of Mister Rogers, is interviewed in jail, where he is serving a sentence for his part in a botched armored car robbery. Most of the Weathermen, who may have taken part in everything from bombing the U.S. Capital to a side job breaking Timothy Leary out of prison, spent little or no time in jail themselves. Turns out the FBI had broken so many laws in pursing the Weathermen that everyone got a legal bargain.
But today's graying American terrorists, looking back at those increasingly surreal events, still hold fast to much of their ideology while acknowledging some poignant regrets. Viewers who get an education from watching The Weather Underground may relate to Mark Rudd who says "I still don't know what to do with this knowledge. It still eats away at me the way it did 30 years ago."
© 2003 - Casey McCabe - Air Date: 7/23/03
The Weather Underground
US - 2002