In 1969 America, things weren't looking too good for the establishment. The Vietnam War was grinding on and on, racial tensions were at an all-time high, hippies were everywhere and demonstrations regularly shut down universities and parts of large cities. That year, however, at the annual meeting of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), one of the largest of the protest groups, a small knot of activists seized control. The new faction was convinced that years of nonviolent, Gandhi-esque behavior (SDS had been founded by mostly white student idealists years earlier at the height of the black voter registration drives in the South) had resulted in a big fat nothing and believed that real action was called for. They soon splintered off, calling themselves The Weathermen (after the line from the Dylan song "Subterranean Homesick Blues": "You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.") and inadvertently gave the establishment exactly what it needed: a target.

The Weather Underground, a smart new documentary about this legendary splinter faction, starts off at the fractious 1969 SDS meeting, and its early scenes are full of the belief, which suffused American leftists at the time, that it was just a matter of time before the military-industrial complex came crumbling down. Intellectual Todd Gitlin (one of the original founders of SDS and the most succinct critic of the Weathermen in the film) compares their beliefs to the same ideology used by Stalin and Mao, namely that when revolutionaries like the Weatherman envision a perfect society around the corner, they become convinced that in order to get there, the deaths of "ordinary people" don't count. One of the more charming and down-to-earth ex-Weathermen interviewed for the film, Brian Flanagan, puts it even more simply: "When you feel you have right on your side you can do some pretty horrific things." This paranoid mentality - which the film shows was exacerbated by the FBI's often illegal campaign against groups like the Black Panthers - explains how this group of mostly middle-class whitebread college kids went from carrying signs to building bombs.

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