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Docurama presents
The Weather Underground (2003)

"Freaks are revolutionaries, and revolutionaries are freaks."
- From a Weather Underground audio communiqué

Review By: Jon Danziger  
Published: May 25, 2004

Director: Sam Green, Bill Siegel

MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 01h:30m:20s
Release Date: May 25, 2004
UPC: 767685960233
Genre: documentary

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A- AB+B B+

DVD Review

Forget the patina that memory has given the 1960s, or the fact that its music is now the stuff of oldies radio, its first fans more interested in their 401k's than in changing the world. If you came of age after that time, the Sixties have taken on a mystical but almost museum-like quality—tune in, turn on, drop out, hey hey, ho ho, cool tie-dye t-shirt, and all that. But The Weather Underground is a reminder of the potency of those times, and revisiting the story of the most radical students of the period has a particular resonance for the twenty-first century: on some level, the Weather Underground were, before Timothy McVeigh, the most dangerous domestic American terrorists.

Sam Green and Bill Siegel's smart movie doesn't sentimentalize the group, but it doesn't canonize them, either; as the best documentaries do, this one is largely mum about its own conclusions, preferring instead to provide us with disparate points of view, and an opportunity to make up our own minds. The directors also wisely and steadfastly won the confidence of the surviving participants of the time, so we get their story whole, not filtered through the prism of social commentators, those with their own political agendas, or from those with any other axe to grind about these days. It makes for a compelling, unnerving documentary.

Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) was the principal vehicle for the protests of college-age Americans against the Vietnam War; but the pacifism and good intentions of the organization wasn't enough to compensate for a lack of managerial capacity, and the group split apart. One of those splinter groups was comprised of the most ardent revolutionaries, who took as their name the Weathermen, from a Bob Dylan lyric ("You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows"), which they interpreted as being about the inevitability of revolution. There was something decidedly charismatic and committed about the group's leaders—Bill Ayers, Bernardine Dohrn, Mark Rudd, David Gilbert—but they didn't rally their cohorts in the numbers they imagined. The most pointed instance of this: their attempt to organize the Days of Rage, in which hundreds of thousands of students were to swarm on Chicago and cause mass urban chaos. Instead, they got maybe a couple hundred at best, who could do no better than old-fashioned hooliganism, breaking windows and knocking heads with Chicago's Finest.

And so the true believers went from overt to covert action, and this most committed (some would say rabid) ideological band became the Weather Underground. They were committed to revolution, to change, to ending the war in Vietnam; and though they vowed not to harm people, they were going to blow things up to effect that change. In the interviews with many of them, that most optimistic hope of the Sixties can still be perceived, even if it doesn't burn quite as brightly; of course, they've got more than their share of critics. These are represented here by Todd Gitlin, an SDS apostate, who has nothing but contempt for the Weather Underground, comparing them to Hitler and Stalin, calling their political philosophy "kindergarten ideas: Join Us, or F**k You." In league with Gitlin here is Dan Strickland, one of the many FBI agents assigned to monitor their doings; even criticizing the Weather Underground are those who would seem to be their ideological kin, such as a representative of the Black Panthers, who calls them "Custeristic," leading their foot soldiers into certain failure.

It is of course hard to argue with their points about the Vietnam War, and the some 3.5 million Vietnamese killed. But that doesn't mean that one need subscribe to their methods, which aided only in their further marginalization, leading to a vicious cycle: more marginal, and thus more violent, the need to make a bigger noise; and more marginal still, and still more violent. But what's so smart about this film is that it doesn't make any ham-handed points, and it's not propagandizing in the manner that a Michael Moore film is—not that that's necessarily a bad thing; it's also a meditation on the consistent illusion of American innocence, with each generation (going back at least until the Civil War, and through the two World Wars, the Kennedy assassination, Vietnam, and most recently 9/11) having their notions of purity shattered. So you may see the Weather Underground as in the vanguard, or a cautionary tale, or one of wretched excess; but theirs is a story worth attending to, and it's well told here.

Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: A


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The archival footage necessarily varies in quality, but the transfer to DVD is a first-rate one, with strong colors and good balance. The newly shot interviews are done largely in very, very tight shots, which show off both the subjects and cinematography in the best possible light.

Image Transfer Grade: B+


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishyes

Audio Transfer Review: Some of the soundtrack music can be a little overpowering, with a percussive buzz that no doubt is intended for effect, but may get you checking your speakers to see that everything is connected as it should be. Other than that, it's a pretty fair-sounding track that calls little attention to itself, as it should be in a film of this sort.

Audio Transfer Grade: B


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 12 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in Spanish with remote access
Cast and Crew Biographies
8 Other Trailer(s) featuring Dont Look Back, Brother’s Keeper, Go Tigers!, Keep the River on Your Right, Porn Star: The Legend of Ron Jeremy , Lost in La Mancha, The Smashing Machine, Sound and Fury
1 Documentaries
1 Featurette(s)
2 Feature/Episode commentaries by director Sam Green (track one), Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn (track two)
Packaging: Amaray
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extra Extras:
  1. 2 original Weather Underground audio communiqués (see below)
  2. statement from the filmmakers
  3. Docurama catalog
Extras Review: Two strong commentary tracks are as much about the 1960s as they are about the nature of documentary filmmaking. On the first, director Sam Green talks about his efforts to make the story new, and not to present a tired, rehashed version of the period, wallpapered with familiar music; the feature was made very much for those who didn't live through these years. It took Green and his collaborators better than two years to win over the confidence of the participants, and the filmmakers made a conscious choice to speak only with those who were present; hence Gitlin carries much of the weight for those critical of the Weather Underground. Green is also acutely concerned about who's listening to him—who are we? What do we think? Where are we? It's very endearing.

On the second track, Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn, two of the charter members of the Weather Underground, offer their own thoughts; they're a little slow warming up to the task (I found myself hollering back in the first couple of minutes: "Say something!"), but they warm to it, and offer lots of good stuff, free-ranging memories and politics, and they're not reluctant to be critical of the filmmaking. (Their greatest wrath is saved for Gitlin, though, who "appointed himself the CEO of The Sixties Incorporated.") And all these years later, they remain true believers: "You could never say that we were thoroughly articulate, but we thought that we were making a revolution."

Also on hand is David Gilbert: A Lifetime of Struggle (28m:24s), from interviews recorded in 1998 with one of the Weather Underground, currently serving seventy-five-to-life in Attica for armed robbery. He is, curiously enough, in many ways the most sanguine, the most articulate and the one with the greatest perspective on his days in the revolution. There's also a clip (04m:22s) from Underground, a 1975 documentary by Emile de Antonio, made while the group was on the lam; and two of the original audio communiqués from the Weather Underground, their declarations of revolution broadcast to the media on cassette tapes.

Brief bios are provided for Green; co-director Bill Siegel; and producer Carrie Lozano; along with a statement from the filmmakers, reflecting on the history of both the Weather Underground and documentaries. Finally, the folks at Docurama have redesigned the catalogs that appear on their DVDs; this one comes with eight trailers for other titles, and looks very handsome.

Extras Grade: B+


Final Comments

You say you want a revolution? Well, you know, we all want to change to world. In a banner year for documentaries (The Fog of War, Capturing the Friedmans, My Architect), The Weather Underground is among the first tier, a pungent revisiting of one of, literally, the most explosive periods in recent American history. A strong package of extras provide still more food for thought about the legacy of the 1960s, and its resonances for us today.


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