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Darren H

The Weather Underground

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This 2002 documentary was mentioned in a couple older threads, but I couldn't find any real discussion of it. Anyone else seen it?

As I mentioned briefly in another thread, I've been frustrated by the recent spate of political documentaries that, while often well-informed and of a worthy subject, have been lacking as films. Too many talking heads, too much raw information. This analogy is a bit of a stretch, but they've begun to remind me of those first research papers that undergrads write -- they've learned how to collect and cite secondary sources, they know the value of structure, but they lack the wisdom, wit, and irony to craft a convincing and compelling argument. Obviously there have been some notable exceptions of late, The Fog of War chief among them.

I really like The Weather Underground. I watched it three times on Saturday, in fact, including two re-viewings so that I could listen to the two commentary tracks. For audiences who don't know much about The Weathermen, specifically, or the New Left, in general, the film does a nice job of synthesizing very complex historical and political developments. The film has the added benefit of really strong interviews. Regardless of what you think about the Vietnam war or of the specific actions of the Weathermen (a radical group that blew up public buildings), the intelligence and articulateness of the former members is compelling.

What I really like about the film, though, is its commentary on violence, in general -- violence as an arm of our foreign policy, violence as a manifestation of societal problems, violence as a means of public protest. I'm really haunted by a comment made by Mark Rudd, a former leader of the Weathermen who is now deeply ambivalent about and "ashamed" (his word) of some of their actions. He says he lost faith in the movement when he realized that Americans only sanction violence -- morally speaking -- when it is state-sponsored. (I wonder if the violence of sports is an exception.)

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I caught this one at the film festival two years ago, and had this to blurb about it:

Then, Sunday. First,
The Weather Underground
(USA, 93 min.), a riveting documentary on the radical student movement that sought to bring down the American government through terrorism in the 1970s (beginning with a two-day riot in Chicago in October 1969). Festivals like this often feature documentaries that lionize radical left-wing movements, no matter how mayhemic they get, so it was fascinating to see a film in which the participants look at their actions a few decades later and try to bring some kind of perspective to what they did. The film, directed by Bill Siegel and Sam Green (the latter of whom also made a documentary about the original '
'), skilfully plumbs the political tensions both in the world at large and within the progressive movements of that time, and it balances the personal and political elements very well too. And what a punchline! (I don't want to spoil it -- you'll have to see the film.) It was also very interesting to watch this while I was in the middle of reading the 1979 novel on which
was based.

I was later reminded of it when I saw Zabriskie Point at that same festival:

After catching a press screening of
in the morning, I caught
Zabriskie Point
(USA, 110 min.), a 1970 film by Antonioni that the festival is showing as part of its retrospective 'Los Angeles Plays Itself' series. How odd, to go from a film which celebrates the trashier aspects of 1970s pop culture to a film that was one of the artier products of 1970s pop culture.
Zabriskie Point
begins on an almost documentary note, as a bunch of white students meet with the leaders of the Black Panthers and discuss the pros and cons of expressing their solidarity -- it was very, very interesting to see this footage and to hear all this talk of revolution just one week after seeing
The Weather Underground
, which brings an historical perspective to this era, highlighting some of the divisions among these groups and showing where all that talk went in the end. Interestingly, when the two main characters have sex in the desert shortly after they meet, Antonioni suddenly brings in a montage in which we see LOTS of people having sex in the desert -- couples, threesomes, maybe even foursomes -- and it's clear that the sex between the two characters, who are basically total strangers, is not meant to be some isolated fling but is supposed to be part of some sort of all-you-need-is-love movement towards oneness; and yet that, too, is one of the attitudes of the age that invites some skepticism in
The Weather Underground
.

I haven't seen either film since then, so I don't think I could elaborate on this right now. But didn't I just read in the news the other day that W. Mark Felt, AKA Deep Throat (AKA the guy who cost Nixon his job by exposing his connection to the illegal break-ins at Watergate), was indicted for illegal break-ins of his own during his investigation of the Weather Underground?


"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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  But didn't I just read in the news the other day that W. Mark Felt, AKA Deep Throat (AKA the guy who cost Nixon his job by exposing his connection to the illegal break-ins at Watergate), was indicted for illegal break-ins of his own during his investigation of the Weather Underground?

If I remember correctly, I believe you are right regarding The Weather Underground implicating Mark Felt to be a part of the illegal practices of the FBI during that time. His finger was at least as dirty as the ones he was pointing it at.

There are many things I liked about this documentary and the way it presented the material. It gave a more human face to the movement The Weathermen were attempting to begin. Much of what has been discussed in academic institutions portrays the group as militant anarchists. The documentary does not attempt to dismiss their battle tactics but it does express their endeavor to make a statement without hurting anyone and to separate themselves from other militant groups such as the Black Panthers. The group began to dismantle after people began to get hurt and there was no longer any preparation considered in making sure the buildings would be empty and avoid any injuries.


...the kind of film criticism we do. We are talking about life, and more than that the possibility of abundant life." -M.Leary

"Dad, how does she move in mysterious ways?"" -- Jude (my 5-year-old, after listening to Mysterious Ways)

[once upon a time known here as asher]

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I would say that their decision to come aboveground is more directly attributable to the end of America's involvement in Vietnam than to any sloppiness in their planning and execution of bombings. Granted, some former members went on from the Weather Underground to other militant groups, and those groups performed actions that resulted in senseless deaths, but as far as I know, the Weathermen were never responsible for injuries to any person outside of their own ranks.

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I saw the film a year ago and I thought it was really well done, an honest look at the people involved without glorifying what they did. I didn't know much about the movement beforehand, so the film was educational as well as interesting. In trying to remember more specifics about the people involved, though, I get it confused with the similar Guerilla, The Taking of Patty Hearst, so I would have to revisit the film again.

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I, too saw the film "Weather Underground" and enjoyed it. It was an interesting documentary, which really showed how vulnerable the "Weathermen" were to attack by the authorities, precisely because they were rather disorganized, plus it showed how the authorities preyed on the Weathermen" precisely because of that. Just my two cents.

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Bear with me here, it has been a while since I watched this and I trust in your response, especially since you have recently watched it 3 times. I referred back to my film journal and refreshed my memory a bit.

I suppose what I was referring to was when other Weathermen had blown themselves up in Greenwich Village building a bomb which was intended for a dance at Fort Dix, it kind of took the wind out of the sale as a larger group movement in relationship to having overtaking the SDS. There seemed to be more of a core group that attempted to hold the original mission with the realization that the way they were going about it was nothing short of terrorism, and the end of their means proved them to be just like the government they were trying to overthrow. The group never killed or injured anyone except its own members but they did want to distance themselves from the militant groups that were specifically out to cause people harm. And at no time in the movie are the actions of the Weathermen attempted to be justified or agreed with.

One interesting thing not mentioned in the film is that after Timothy Leary was back in prison after the Weathermen helped him to escape, he reportedly ratted out his Weather Underground allies to the FBI in exchange for early release.

Mark Felt...

Many of its members were placed on the FBI's most-wanted list but, like most of the Weatherman, none went to prison. This is mostly due to the FBI's notorious COINTELPRO program which broke so many laws that the evidence gathered was worthless.


...the kind of film criticism we do. We are talking about life, and more than that the possibility of abundant life." -M.Leary

"Dad, how does she move in mysterious ways?"" -- Jude (my 5-year-old, after listening to Mysterious Ways)

[once upon a time known here as asher]

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I don't have much to add; the film speaks for itself. But I thought it was exceptional.

Surprisingly, a friend of mine who's an avowed Progressive but also a documentary filmmaker, warned me that this was a bad documentary, way too one-sided. When I told him I'd heard otherwise, he confessed he'd turned the film off very early, in disgust.

The early portion of the film never offended me, and it certainly gets better as it goes, as some (but not all) of the interviewees begin to express disenchantment (but not outright apologies) over their earlier activities.

Also, everyone who watches this doc should be sure to watch the credits, which are intercut with updates on each of the film's participants -- including one guy who won ... well, it's too good to spoil. You have to watch it. I'd link to a related thread on this board, but even that would spoil things (hope I didn't just give it away!).


"What matters are movies, not awards; experiences, not celebrations; the subjective power of individual critical points of view, not the declamatory compromises of consensus." - Richard Brody, "Godard's Surprise Win Is a Victory for Independent Cinema," The New Yorker

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Did your friend mention what, exactly, so offended him in the first part of the film? I would assume it was the Vietnam sequence, which is certainly difficult to watch but which, I think, is absolutely essential for contextualizing the urgency of the anti-war movement. When I think of how anxious and angry I've felt at times during the Iraq war, despite the relatively low number of casualties, I can't imagine how I would have felt in the early-70s. I wouldn't have been making bombs, of course, but I I think I could have sympathized with some of their motives for doing so.

The more I think about this film, the more I appreciate it, and the more many of the other documentaries I've seen recently pale by comparison. I especially liked the closing sequence. They cut between three shots: the interview with Mark Rudd in which he describes his shame and ambivalence, footage from Vietnam, and a b&w shot of the young Rudd. It's really a fantastic montage. While Rudd explains his ambivalence, he also says that he still isn't able to completely grasp the amount of violence and destruction we are capable of. The footage from Vietnam expresses this so perfectly -- an American bomber decimates a small village of thatch-roofed houses that stand alone in a field of green. It's completely absurd. When they cut to the old shot of Rudd, one we've seen once or twice already in the film, they slow it down, and the new context adds all kinds of complexity to the expression on his face. Great stuff.

I'm glad to hear that you enjoyed it, Christian. I was worried that my own biases had colored my opinion too much in the film's favor.

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Just finished watching this - I concur with most of the preceding comments. As one who was completely ignorant of this organization, this was a highly educational film.

Like you, Darren, I was very struck by Rudd's comment about the American populace and its attitude towards violence: in essence, how state-sanctioned violence is quietly tolerated by most everyone, yet those who perpetuate violence outside of state approval are inevitably viewed as wrong, crazy, or both. I would only add to his statement the historical qualifier 'since the American Revolution...', but other than that, I believe he's spot on, and that his comment is well-worth chewing over. (On this note, it was a delicious irony that when they finally surrendered, the Underground members couldn't be tried due to their pursuers' -- i.e., the FBI's -- criminal behavior.)

Having just finished Yoder's fantastic The Politics of Jesus, I was saddened that personal and societal forces have apparently kept the former Underground members from contemplating the relevance of Jesus' message to their God-given desires for societal justice and peace.

Lastly, I had forgotten how strong MLK's opposition to the American war in Vietnam had been (an 'abomination,' in his words).

Thanks to those who spoke so highly of this film. I think it would have passed under my radar, without your praise.


To be an artist is never to avert one's eyes.
- Akira Kurosawa

https://www.patheos.com/blogs/secularcinephile/

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I agree with you that Fog of War is an exceptionally well-done documentary. I also agree that The Weather Underground is an example of a well-done film.* It's not visually stunning the way Baraka is, and it is not heavy on cuts and the use of archive B-roll like Fog of War is, but that does not mean that it lacks any wisdom, wit, or irony. (*amended)

I learned a lot from this film--stuff I never learned in high school or college political history classes. I beleive that the filmmakers did a very good job of letting all of the former members have their say. I think the reason that Fog of War seems to be a more cohesive story is that it is just one man's perspective. When you add together several different people's perspectives, it's bound to be a little more messy, because there isn't total consensus of opinion. Also, the Weathermen themselves were aesthetically rough around the edges. They were low-rent and raw, and I think the overall feel of this film (unpolished, a mish-mash of interviews shot on film and on DV) fits the subject quite well. It wouldn't do to have a beautiful, well-polished film about a group that lived like bums and blew stuff up.

Edited by finnegan

I have a blog? here at A&F that I sometimes post in.

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finnegan, did you stop reading my response after the first paragraph? Have you read any of the rest of the thread? I'm not sure why you feel compelled to post a "defense" of a film that has been praised from the first post to the last. I mean, I'm glad you liked it. But I think we're all in agreement here that it's a pretty great film, which is is especially impressive considering how widely we diverge on many political issues.

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Yes, I read the whole thread. Perhaps I misunderstood your fist paragraph. I wasn't attacking you.

I was simply pointing out aspects of the aesthetics of the film that I believe work together to make it a good movie, although those same elements might hurt other documentary films.


I have a blog? here at A&F that I sometimes post in.

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