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In the late 1960s and early 1970s polarization of American political situation was becoming acute, with the Vietnam War abroad and civil rights at home being the most pressing issues. For the youth political movement, seemingly ineffectual methods of peaceful protest and resistance led to the rise of a faction that wanted a more extreme approach that the government could not ignore. One particular group, the Weather Underground, attempted to team up with the Black Panthers to violently confront the US government. They began with participation in street riots, and escalated their efforts to include the bombing of specific targets associated with the government or local power structures. Thorough archival footage and interviews of participants on both sides of this conflict, this film covers the Weather Underground's campaign of violence through this period, the FBI's strategies and tactics to apprehend them (including some deemed unethical or illegal), until changing times and ... Written by
Kenneth Chisholm (email@example.com)
Once Richard Nixon was elected president and inaugurated in January 1969, we were targeted, bam, bam, bam, by a very sophisticated, advanced, counterintelligence program; At the same time, by very crude and violent police.
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The Weatherman faction remains one of the more troubling aspects of the 60s counterculture, for manifold reasons. How did a bunch of well-educated, relatively privileged white kids transform from idealistic protesters for peace into revolutionary terrorists? How were they able to reconcile the inherent contradiction of using violence as a means of pursuing peace? Can violence ever lead to reconciliation, or must it necessarily beget more violence? Sam Green and Bill Siegel's documentary examines all of these questions while remaining remarkably objective. It's a pity that we should feel surprised when a documentary filmmaker actually attempts to uphold the all-but-obsolete standard of objectivity; nevertheless, Green and Siegel deserve to be complimented for presenting a film that is perhaps more a window into the confusion of the times than a history of one peculiar faction of anti-government activists.
Green & Siegel intersperse archival footage with commentary by a number of the Weather Underground's leaders, most of whom retain their revolutionary idealism, even if they have grown circumspect about their methodology.
The film persuasively channels the aura of violence and political unrest that characterized American culture as the first vestiges of counter-cultural idealism gave way first to frustration as the war in Vietnam escalated and then to radicalism as, one after another, civil and human rights activists ranging from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to Chicago Black Panther leader Fred Hampton were brutally silenced, possibly by order of American government agencies such as the CIA, NSA, and FBI. Simultaneously, the tenor of apolitical American life shifted from the good vibrations of psychedelia to paranoia and suspicion. The image of the blissed-out, peace-loving, groovy hippie was replaced by the crazed expression of Charles Manson, whose murderous id made every God-fearing citizen's worst nightmares reality: acid-crazed hippies rampaging the suburbs, butchering innocents in order to start a revolution that would overthrow the status quo. Siegel's and Green's direction employs numerous archival clips that are shockingly graphic, including horrific footage of executions and the bodies of civilian casualties in Vietnam (including many women and small children) and uncensored crime scene photographs from the Tate-LaBianca murders ordered by Charles Manson. The material is somewhat objectionable, but serves the purpose of expressing the climate of fear that made it possible for the likes of Mark Rudd--now a quiet, somewhat melancholy math teacher at a community college in New Mexico--to drop out of sight and begin plotting the violent overthrow of the American political system.
The film presents the Weather Underground as admirable in its courage and determination, but also as terminally misguided. Weatherman leaders repeatedly express their solidarity with the Black Panthers and any revolutionary movement of underclass 'brown or black' people on the planet, but the few Panthers who comment for the film either disavow the Weathermen or express perplexity at their determination to identify with the struggle of blacks and other oppressed ethnicities. As adults, several of the group members acknowledge that, even when they were harassed or beaten by police, they were still treated far more humanely than their black counterparts, and so were never truly in the same struggle as those whom they supported. Some of the members still speak nostalgically about their Weathermen days and claim that they'd do it all over again; others express disdain and regret over their complicity in the deaths of innocents.
As we begin to see history repeating itself in Iraq, 'The Weather Underground' is all too timely. What was different about the 60s and 70s, when so many young people became committed to political activism, from the present, when the numbers are relatively few? Will the process that brought about the Weather Underground repeat itself, or was this particular group less a consequence of the times than of the choices of a few charismatic but misguided and naive twenty-somethings? Did Weatherman make a difference, or was it simply another small piece of the catastrophic collage of the Vietnam era? This film raises more questions than it answers--which is probably what art should always try to do.
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