Long before Al-Qaida, the U.S. had its own terrorist factions. But while Osama bin Laden and Timothy McVeigh have been almost universally reviled, the Weathermen were hailed in certain sectors as heroes. A small, radical off-shoot of the '60s antiwar group Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the Weathermen were frustrated by the peace movement’s apparent lack of impact and took matters into their own hands. They first attempted to organize the working class and provoke violent protests and disobedience. But when that proved ineffective, they went underground and pulled off a string of spectacular bombings around the nation in the early '70s.
The documentary The Weather Underground, directed by Sam Green and Bill Siegel, looks at that time by combining old news footage and contemporary interviews with several members of the Weathermen. The former perfectly captures the early '70s zeitgeist, when the peace-and-love faction was splintering, cannibalizing itself in its own discord. But it also reminds us of a time when a large segment of the population was willing to take to the streets to protest injustice and oppression thousands of miles away.
Even more fascinating, though, are the interviews. Thirty years later, most of the Weathermen remain proud of what they did. Though it’s doubtful the bombings had much impact on American policy, the group’s leaders—specifically Bernadine Dohrn and Billy Ayers—rhetorically ask, “Was it a just cause? Was there a need to do something?” and then answer, “Doing nothing in a period of repressive violence is itself a form of violence.” The documentary dutifully trots out a couple members with second thoughts, as well as dissenters; one calls the Weathermen “a children’s crusade gone mad.” But the filmmakers stack the deck, reminding us again and again of the horrors of the Vietnam War and giving much more screen time to the apologists.
It should be noted the Weathermen were a far cry from today’s terrorists. They methodically planned their bombings so that no one was injured. Still, the question “Was there a need to do something?” is a far different question than “What something should we do?” Nevertheless, the movie is a powerful historical document, as well as a potent exploration of the hows and whys of political dissent.