Mark Rudd never wants to see this movie again. For starters, the man who led the 1968 Columbia University student coup "doesn't like to live in the past." He's happy being a math teacher; he's never even sought a publisher for his memoirs. But as one of the stars of the "Weather Underground," he's expected to speak out again and again.
"When Vietnam comes up, my students will ask me: 'What did you do in the 60s?" Rudd says. "Well … I helped found an organization dedicated to the violent overthrow of the United States government."
Rudd is sheepish, humble, and not sure what to think about his radical days. He's a rarity. Since their heyday in the early 1970s, the Weathermen have been the subject of several films and books, a PBS special, and untold miles of newspaper and magazine columns. The Weather Underground, a documentary by Sam Green and Bill Siegel, is trickling into theaters after nearly winning the Grand Jury prize at Sundance. A novel about a soul-searching Weatherman, Neil Gordon's The Company You Keep, will arrive later in June. A group that never included more than 40 people has kept up the licensing power of a Marvel comic.
Green and Siegel's picture is the latest and most comprehensive attempt to repackage the Weatherman story. When Weatherman-cum-education professor Bill Ayers published his unapologetic memoirs in September 2001, he was buffeted by criticism. That won't happen to Green and Siegel; their film, says Green, "does not say what they did was right or wrong. It's a question movie."
For all that, the movie sticks pretty close to the model of 1960s documentaries. It opens with footage of the squarest, most whitebread newsreader imaginable delivering news of the latest attack by "the radical left-wing group, the Weather Underground." Gerald Ford is shown dazedly surveying an attack on the U.S. Capitol. Another square covers the 1969 convention of Students for a Democratic Society, where the Weathermen first asserted themselves over the anti-war movement. He announces that the group's leader, Bernardine Dohrn, has barred "vultures" from the convention, and the sexy Dohrn herself tells him she's talking about "the bourgeois press." The dynamic is set up right away: The radicals were smart and swashbuckling. The mainstream was pathetic.
Extensive news coverage of the SDS faction that would become Weatherman segues into interviews with the radicals today. They're filmed with the delicacy of Ken Burns' historians or the Discovery Channel's antelopes: Dohrn appears on a wind-swept balcony, Laura Whitehorn walks in a New York park, Naomi Jaffe sits outside her garden. Jaffe remembers her decision to engage in a terrorist campaign against the government by lamenting: "I had to cut my hair. That was hard for me. I had long hair down to my waist."
Green dispenses blow-by-blow history and concentrates on his subjects' motivations. Ayers walks the site of the Days of Rage, a 1969 Chicago riot that the Weathermen hoped would kick off the disintegration of bourgeois society. He makes it clear: They wanted to "overthrow this oppressive capitalist system." But he remembers that Weatherpeople had hoped for thousands of students to show up for the riots, and he was terrified when only about 150 did. "It was a hard collision with reality," he tells the camera. "I wanted someone to stop us from what we were about to do."
Of course, he followed it up by becoming a terrorist.
The killing of Black Panther officer Fred Hampton is the next set piece. Whitehorn speculates that the government killed Hampton in his sleep for fear of his potential to become a revolutionary leader. There are scenes of Hampton's blood-stained bed and his funeral, and Weatherpeople jump in to explain why they felt they needed to respond by bombing a military dance at Fort Dix. When that bomb accidentally explodes in a Greenwich Village safe house, killing three Weathermen, the group backpedals and dedicates itself to bombing government buildings after they've been emptied, to avoid murder. There's a long, dynamic sequence that recreates the first Weatherman bomb at the San Francisco Department of Prisons with voiceover from the anonymous memoir of the bomber.
From here the movie becomes a lengthy montage made up of shorter montages. Each Weatherman action is rattled off, intercut with scenes of cheering students and dour Richard Nixon speeches. When the Weathermen become disillusioned, we see footage of Nixon resigning. When the 1980s begin, we get a hilarious short splicing images of Ronald Reagan, Hands Across America and AIDS rallies with a Jane Fonda workout video. The radicals have hung up their red flags; as Jaffe puts it, "It wasn't going to be as dramatic when the war ended."
In 92 minutes and three acts, the Weathermen have gone from idealism to terrorism to memorializing. Why don't they shock and horrify us? Well, their decisions are matched by context, of a sort. As Weatherpeople talk about their decision to use violence, we see the most famous images of the Vietnam war. The girl running from napalm? She's here. The plaid-shirted guy getting shot in the head? He's here. My Lai? Burning villages? Check, check. Green and Siegel use all this to boil their questions down into one plea: What else should they have done, when this kind of stuff was going on?
"To us it was a question of stopping the real violence," says David Gilbert, the only subject who's interviewed from prison (for a crime unrelated to the Weathermen). Naomi Jaffe makes it clear that, if she was given another chance to live through the 1960s, she'd "do it again." She best articulates the message that all of her comrades want to impart: To sit by while her government is engaging in violence, doing "terrible things," is "itself an act of violence." What Weatherman did, no matter how it looks, was meant to make the world better. Just look at that girl getting napalmed!
This is why Mark Rudd is so vital to The Weather Underground. His former comrades are unapologetic about what they did. Most of them are living second lives as progressive social activists. Not Rudd. He's tortured. He actually compares himself to a "fundamentalist," a word that obviously sickens him.
Left out of the film completely is a record of what happened to the "revolution happening in the third world" that the young Rudd talked about. Green and Siegel include footage of Mao and North Vietnamese tanks rolling into Saigon. The murderous effects of those revolutions, of the people the Weathermen wanted to emulate, are left unspoken. The only record is provided by Rudd when, sighing into the camera, he tries to explain why he used to think he could free mankind by setting off bombs.
"When you believe you have the moral high ground, you can do some terrible things."
The Weather Underground is playing a limited engagement at the Film Forum in New York City. It opens in San Francisco on July 25 and Chicago on August 1, with wider release to follow.