The Weather UndergroundWritten and directed by Sam Green and Bill SiegelStarring William Ayers, Bernadine Dohrn, Mark Rudd and Lili TaylorNot Rated*8.5*
Goes well with: The Free Speech Movement, Chicago 10, Why We Fight
Though I'm loathe to admit it, there's at least one thing on which I can agree with that nasty beauty-pageant wannabe Sarah Palin: William Ayers used to blow stuff up. Yep. It's true. Dude spent part of the '70s off the grid, occasionally planting bombs with other members of the Weather Underground as part of what now appears to be a misguided attempt to foster some regime change right here at home.
Ayers—as does his wife, fellow Weatherperson Bernadine Dohrn, and several other members of the group—talks candidly about his experiences in The Weather Underground, the Oscar-nominated 2002 documentary that is making a timely appearance in theaters. It opens Oct. 17 at Reading Gaslamp.
Co-directors Sam Green and Bill Siegel weave those interviews with archival footage from the '60s and '70s, offering a mini history lesson of the antiwar movement surrounding Vietnam and how members of Students for a Democratic Society, dissatisfied with a nonviolent approach, splintered off into the Weathermen, a faction dedicated to using force to foster a revolution here in the United States. But after the infamous 1970 explosion in a Greenwich Village townhouse killed three of their members, who were preparing to attack a non-commissioned officers dance at Fort Dix, most of the hardcore members of the Weathermen, including Ayers and Dohrn, decided that killing civilians probably wasn't the best way to win the hearts and minds of America's Joe Sixpacks. But with the eyes of The Man upon them, the key members of The Weathermen went underground, surfacing occasionally to blow up a building or other symbol of government oppression.
Wisely, Green and Siegel don't judge their subjects. Instead, The Weather Underground gives Ayers and several of his former comrades the opportunity to explain not just what happened, but why. And though it's almost impossible not to condemn their actions, it's also equally impossible not to juxtapose the passionate anti-Vietnam War movement with the considerably more muted antiwar movement of today. The government may not have bowed to the demands of those calling for an end to the war, but they realized there were real consequences for not doing so. Planting bombs seems extreme, but there must be a middle ground between the extremes of the Weathermen and our present apathy.
Most of the former Weathermen have mixed emotions about that time in their lives. Mark Rudd, in particular, clearly regrets his actions, while David Gilbert, serving life in prison for a botched robbery after the dissolution of the Weathermen, seems to have no regrets. Others have taken stands somewhere in the middle—they recognize that their choices cost them any semblance of a normal life for years, but they also believe their cause, if not their actions, was just.
For his part, Ayers comes across as intelligent and articulate, a hip academic who's put his past behind him and become a distinguished professor and a leading advocate for progressive education reform. Linking Obama to him is ridiculous, since the presidential contender was under 10 years old when the events in question occurred. But all's fair in politics, as they say, and it's well worth watching The Weather Underground to get a real sense of who Bill Ayers was during the '60s, why he did the things he did and, more importantly, who he is today.
We're taught, as we grow up, to try to change the system from within. Say what you want about Ayers and the rest of the Weathermen, but they were a deeply passionate group that tried to go outside that system during a fascinating time of turmoil, when our government was deeply involved in unconscionable events. Some things, it seems, never change.