In a scene from The Weather Underground, a compelling documentary about a group of young radicals hell-bent on waging their own war against the government during the Vietnam era, former member Brian Flanagan tries to make sense of what they stood for and why they did what they did. After watching him fumble for the right words, you realize, some 30 years later, that he can't quite reconcile his actions. He stares into the camera and blurts it out: "The Vietnam War made us all a little crazy." That could be the blanket statement for the motivations of the Weather Underground, or possibly the tagline for the film, but it by no means sums up the Zeitgeist of the era. One of the first voices in the film is an excerpt from Weather Underground leader Bernardine Dohrn, reading a taped communiqué: "Hello. I'm going to read a declaration of a state of war. Within the next 14 days, we will attack a symbol or institution of American injustice." The Weathermen already knew which way the wind was going to blow.
The group started out as a nonviolent collective called Students for a Democratic Society, but several members splintered off and became the Weathermen. Spearheaded by Dohrn and vowing to "bring the war home," the Weathermen first took to the streets of Chicago in a 1969 demonstration known as "the Days of Rage," smashing storefront windows in an upscale shopping district as an emblematic middle finger to the bourgeoisie. Through archival newspaper clippings, photographs, film footage, audio, FBI documents, and recent interviews with former members, the film chronicles the group's efforts to kick-start a revolution. When student protests began to wane in the early '70s, the Weathermen went underground and changed their strategy from vocal and physical protest to an all-out terrorist campaign against American injustice.
The Weather Underground became a name that buzzed around the counterculture with a mixture of curiosity and fear. Its followers managed to pull off the bombing of police headquarters in New York City and the U.S. Capitol mailroom. But their most notable stunt came in 1970, when they helped LSD guru Timothy Leary escape from prison and flee the country with a forged passport. For years, the members of the Underground eluded capture (after Dohrn and her husband, Bill Ayers, turned themselves in in 1980, charges were dropped on technicalities). As righteous as their efforts might have seemed at the time, they faced criticism from the left and the right. Many felt that the Weathermen bombings were just an extension of the bloodlust of Vietnam. Interviews with Dohrn, Ayers, and Flanagan, as well as ex-members Mark Rudd, David Gilbert, Laura Whitehorn, and Naomi Jaffe, show the erstwhile terrorists as respected middle-aged teachers, lawyers, professors, and authors residing in affluent suburbs, giving Dohrn's taped 1969 message that "freaks are revolutionaries and revolutionaries are freaks" an odd echo.