As the militant branch of Students for a Democratic Society, the Weather Underground was among the most controversial groups to emerge from the American political unrest of the late ’60s and early ’70s. To protest the Vietnam War and other issues, the Weathermen (as they were known colloquially) employed such dangerous tactics as bombing government facilities. By the mid-’70s, the core Weathermen were fugitives from justice. All of this explains why the Weathermen documentary Underground is an interesting historical artifact, even though it’s quite sketchy as a piece of cinema. Co-directed by Emile de Antonio, Mary Lampson, and Haskell Wexler—all deeply committed to progressive causes—the picture essentially comprises one long rap session with a group of Weathermen. The radicals are partially obscured from view, appearing in silhouette or sitting with their backs to the camera, and so on.
Accordingly, this is a talking-head doc without any talking heads, and the archive footage and text graphics that the filmmakers use to spruce up certain scenes are not enough to keep the film visually compelling. Given these limitations, would the material have been more effective as a book or a magazine article? The question is moot, because Underground is what exists.
Much of what the radicals describe is fascinating and provocative. William Ayers, Kathy Boudin, Bernardine Dorhn, Jeff Jones and Cathy Wilkerson talk about class warfare, the insidious reach of the military-industrial complex, and the need for revolution to change America’s racist culture. The passion these people have for their mission feels completely real, even if some of their rhetoric sounds naïve. The radicals explain how fear is part of their everyday lives because they’re wanted by the Feds—and yet they claim to accept their daily anxiety because it parallels the fear pervading the underclass they champion. White privilege alert! Beyond aesthetic limitations and some dissonance of perspective, Underground has an intention problem. Because the interviewers are plainly sympathetic with their subjects, the movie isn’t remotely objective, which means it wasn’t designed to change the minds of people who consider the Weathermen criminals. So was the movie actually made as some sort of recruiting tool?
Seen today, Underground serves a useful purpose as a historical artifact. During the time of its release, the value probably wasn’t so clear, which might be why the FBI subpoenaed the filmmakers, hoping to scare them into revealing the whereabouts of the interviewees. The FBI’s interest raises the most basic question about the Weathermen—were they revolutionaries or terrorists? Hearing the activists lay out their platform lets viewers draw their own conclusions.