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With: Lili Taylor (narrator), Pamela Z (narrator), Bernardine Dohrn, Mark Rudd, Brian Flanagan, David Gilbert, Bill Ayers, Naomi Jaffe, Todd Gitlin, Laura Whitehorn, Don Strickland, Kathleen Cleaver
Written by: n/a
Directed by: Sam Green, Bill Siegel
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Running Time: 92
Date: 11/17/2002
IMDB

The Weather Underground (2003)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Before the Storm

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

It's hard to imagine that not long ago, Americans could go on television and openly criticize their government -- and not just the current administration, either. The entire democratic system. The whole shebang. Nowadays, those people would be shut down and squashed faster than you can say "Dixie Chicks."

Yet, there they are, in 1960s and '70s-era archival footage on view in the new documentary The Weather Underground.

"The Vietnam War made us all a little crazy," says one interviewee. This crazy time spawned the Weather Underground, also known as the Weathermen, an ultra left-wing radical group that sought to bring the Vietnam War to American soil by blowing up a lot of stuff.

Ultimately, their efforts had the same effect as when this year's war protesters vandalized everything in their path. It just turned a lot of people off.

The new documentary The Weather Underground, which opens Friday at the Castro for a two-week run, tells the story of this group of people, interspersing powerful period footage with modern-day interviews.

Splintering from the non-violent Students for a Democratic Society, the Weathermen were young, charismatic, media savvy and street smart; one journalist compares them to Bonnie and Clyde. Former member Naomi Jaffe explains her thought process at the time: not responding to violence was in itself a form of violence.

The Weathermen genuinely hoped to build a following and topple the American government. Many of their attacks responded directly to race-related violence against members of the Black Panthers, and specifically Fred Hampton, who was murdered in his sleep by police.

At another point, the group took money to break drug guru Timothy Leary out of jail.

But a huge surprise awaited them when their big, end-all be-all rally attracted less than 200 fellow malcontents. Not nearly enough to take over a whole country.

Still, the FBI was terrified of the Weathermen and kept extensive files on them -- some of which the group managed to steal.

Directed by Sam Green and Bill Siegel, the film does a remarkable job of showing both sides of the story. It depicts the Weather Underground as a group of people who thought they were doing the right thing.

The modern-day Weathermen sometimes look sheepish when talking about their past. Mark Rudd, one of the most notorious members of the group, now teaches math at a New Mexico Community College. "My students look at me as if I were from another planet," he says.

The Weather Underground appears as if it was made for television, and mostly consists of the "talking head" format. A fascinating score by Dave Cerf and Amy Domingues helps, as does passionate narration by local performer Pamela Z and silky-voiced actress Lili Taylor (High Fidelity).

Nonetheless, this is no smelly relic from an age gone by. This is essential viewing, especially given that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

(This review also appeared in The San Francisco Examiner.)

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