The radical branch of the SDS that split off from the parent group in the 1960s and engaged in increasingly violent anti-war tactics is the subject of this solid but technically conventional, and arguably overly sympathetic, documentary by Sam Green and Bill Siegel. The Weathermen, as they called themselves after a Bob Dylan lyric, initiated a campaign of small-scale destruction in 1969 after mass demonstrations had failed to effect a change in Vietnam policy. But their philosophy encompassed complaints about racism and poverty as well as the war. Their methods included bombings, jailbreaks (the best known being that which freed Timothy Leary from custody) and a variety of other actions, mostly directed against what the perpetrators identified as particular symbols of oppression. Law enforcement authorities took extraordinary pains to find them–and as later evidence disclosed, often broke the law themselves in the process (in many cases tainting the prosecutions).
“The Weather Underground” sketches the history of the movement using familiar techniques. There’s a good deal of found footage–newsreel excerpts and television reports, mostly. These are supplemented by interviews, notably with survivors of the group (Mark Rudd and Bernadine Dohrn probably being the best known). The picture doesn’t manage to plumb any depths in discussing the motives behind the Weathermen’s work, but it has to be remembered that they were mostly upper-middle-class kids whose thought was basically schematic and hardly profound; it’s possible there were just no depths to plumb. The result is a good job of coverage, but one that doesn’t go much beyond the surface, especially since the makers don’t seem to have pressed their subjects to consider the ramifications of their acts.
Whatever your views of the Weather Underground back in their day or now, though, you’ll have to admit that it’s hard not to be nostalgic for the sort of terrorists who took care in setting their bombs to do damage only to property. (The only people who died as a result of their activity seem to have been some of their own number killed when a bomb they were preparing exploded prematurely.) At a time when humans have now become the target of choice, and in as great a quantity as possible, that fact makes these misguided but principled rebels seem almost heroic–which is how, in a muted, slightly regretful way, the film portrays them.