Going ‘Underground’

Eric Hoyt

Fueled by frustration at the ineffectiveness of peaceful protests against the Vietnam War and racism in the United States, a group of young radicals in the ’60s and ’70s attempted to “bring the war home” to white, middle-class America.

Taking precautions not to kill anyone, the Weather Underground bombed government and corporate buildings in response to violence they perceived the U.S. government and big businesses was committing. Their goal was not simply to convince the U.S. government to end the Vietnam War but to violently overthrow the government itself.

“The Weather Underground,” a new documentary that opens Friday at the Music Box Theatre, chronicles the rise and fall of this largely forgotten group.

Directors Sam Green and Bill Siegel, who will appear in person at the Music Box on Friday and Saturday night, approached former group members as soon as they began working on the film in 1998.

“Sam and I knew we weren’t interested in doing the film unless we could get the Weather Underground members to talk on camera,” Siegel said.

But getting the former members to talk was no easy task.

“They were pretty skeptical at first,” Green said. “All that had been written about the group before that had really played up the drugs and sexiness.”

Former member Brian Flanagan consented after learning other former members, many of whom he is still in close touch with, were speaking to Siegel and Green.

Ultimately, several former members agreed to appear on camera — including Mark Rudd, Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn, who currently runs the Northwestern Law School’s Children and Family Justice Center.

Reflecting on their experience, the former members present a wide range of thoughts and emotions — from pride and hope to regret and disappointment.

Flanagan likes the documentary, but said his feelings about his past are portrayed too negatively. Although he has some regrets, he said “95 percent of the time what (the Weather Underground) did was right on the mark.”

Ironically, most of the charges against Underground members were dropped due to the discovery of illegal FBI investigatory practices. Today most of the members lead fairly ordinary lives.

The documentary balances the members’ testimonies with other viewpoints — including those of a former Black Panther leader, an ex-FBI agent and a peace activist who opposed the Weather Underground and partially blames them for the decline of left-wing support during the Nixon era.

The film’s interviews also are supplemented by archival footage, which grounds the viewer in the group’s historical context. The footage includes combat in Vietnam, news reports on Weather Underground bombings, and violent confrontations with Chicago police.

These often-disturbing images are viscerally affecting and contribute to the film’s power, according to Joshua Rothkopf, film critic for the political news magazine “In These Times.”

“The history of the left is a living history,” Rothkopf said. “To merely read about it on the page is not to feel the energy.”

One way that history changes was in the effect the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks had on the cultural context of the film. Though Siegel said he and Green had begun editing the film at the time, the attacks made them reconsider completing it. They ultimately decided to proceed, making sure to treat the issue of terrorism with the seriousness it deserved.

For Siegel, the film seems even more timely now.

“The climate for dissent has become more repressive today, ” Siegel said. “You’re really supposed to wrap yourself in the flag.”

And the story of the Weather Underground could be helpful to young activists today, according to Rothkopf.

“They made their voices heard, which I think is a goal of any leftist group,” Rothkopf said.

Flanagan has already received positive feedback from young activists who saw the documentary and were motivated by the Weather Underground’s strong commitment.

“We were dedicated,” Flanagan said. “We were risking our lives.”

Siegel hopes the film will start “an open discussion” about issues such as activism and dissent, violence and terrorism, and the responsibility of the American citizen.

Green also hopes the film will help people think critically about the group’s story, which he finds “complicated” and “morally ambiguous,” rather than being seen as an endorsement or condemnation of the group’s actions.

“I don’t like movies that tell you what to think or tell you what’s right and wrong,” Green said. “I hope ours gets people to think and to question themselves about the complex issues of today.”