The War at Home seems so far away now

B Restored documentary
Directed by Glenn Silber and Barry Alexander Brown

I usually review new films. But this time, I’m reviewing a new restoration of a nearly 40-year-old documentary. Some people may find it nostalgic; I didn’t.

From the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s, America was in a hopeless, unwinnable, far-away war in Vietnam. College students, many of whom were likely to be drafted into the army, created a strong anti-war movement. Over the years, the most radical within that movement turned to violence to end the war and change American society.

The War at Home focuses on that movement in one particular college town: Madison, Wisconsin. It was a good choice. Like Berkeley and many other university towns, Madison saw sit-ins, marching, strikes, police violence, and student violence. There was even a bombing.

Siber and Brown released their documentary in 1979, when the political and cultural wounds were still fresh. When you see the film today, you’re watching a nearly 40-year-old examination of what was then recent history. There’s no historical context, and no connection to our own time. Very important national shocks – for instance, the assassination of Robert Kennedy and the Pentagon Papers – are never mentioned. The film’s original audience would have known how these events affected what was happening in Madison.

As was common for documentaries back then, there is no narration, and the film doesn’t need it. TV and radio news reports, and especially the stories of the people involved, explain what happened. Outside of Allen Ginsberg, you won’t know most of these talking heads, but their stories are interesting and unique. Paul Soglin, Madison’s mayor when he was interviewed, still had the longish hair that proclaimed anti-establishment. Jack von Mettenheim was not a young radical when he marched in Madison; decades before he had marched against Hitler in Germany. Karleton Armstrong bombed a campus building that he thought was empty; a graduate student died.

It’s tempting to proclaim that the period covered is very much like the polarized America of today. The press release suggested that very thing. But it’s not true. America is even more polarized today than we were then. We all watched the same TV news and to a large degree we all believed the same facts – even if we disagreed on what to do about them.

Since I streamed the film over the Internet instead of in a movie theater, I can’t really review the 4K restoration – actually digitized with a 5K scanner. I suspect a 2K restoration would look just as good. Like most documentaries before the 1990s, it was shot in grainy 16mm film. The film contains both color and black-and-white scenes.

If you’re too young to have experienced those days, this film will give you a sense of what was happening. If you’re old enough to remember, it will help you wipe away the nostalgia.

The film opens Friday at the Opera Plaza and the Shattuck. Co-director Glenn Silber will answer questions in person after these following screenings:

Opera Plaza

  • Friday, October 26, 7:30
  • Saturday, October 27, 2:20

Shattuck

  • Saturday, October 27, 7:00
  • Sunday, October 28, 4:00

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