"The War at Home," which begins a brief engagement today at the Inner Circle, fails to hit home in the Lest We Forget spirit that filmmakers Glenn Silber and Barry Alexander Brown probably had in mind.
A progressively wearisome browse down memory lane with former antiwar activists at the University of Wisconsin campus in Madison, this documentary feature recalls the history of antiwar protest from 1963 to the signing of the Paris peace accords in 1973. Silber and Brown display their scrapbook of archival documentary clips and recent interviews in an orderly fashion, but the cumulative effect seems peculiarly uninspired and uninquisitive, calculated to confirm political perceptions and self-images formed in that decade.
The material is organized more or less chronologically, intercutting newsreel footage derived predominantly from Madison TV stations with recollections by participants in the events. The witnesses include representatives of vested authority -- a campus policeman, a university administrator -- but the preponderance of testimony comes from former student activists, giving the documentation an indulgent nostalgic tilt to the left.
Militancy peaked at Madison with the bombing of the Army's Math Research Center on Aug. 24, 1970. Conceived as a symbolic reprisal against the Cambodian "incursion," this act of terrorism resulted in the death of one person, injury to several others and the eventual trial and conviction of Karl Armstrong, erstwhile mild-mannered undergraduate.
Now on parole, Armstrong is one of the principal interview subjects. He stands out among the former fire brands by passing a critical judgment on his actions. According to Armstrong, he regarded the bombing as a stupid gesture the moment he heard about the killing it caused. He had abandoned a grandiose scheme to rent a plane and drop a bomb on a local munitions plant. "I felt," he explains, in the period jargon that still seems maddening, "that the psychological effect . . . would heighten awareness of the struggle." Nevertheless, Armstrong attains a certain dignity by being harder on himself than anyone else.
The political history of 1975-79 remains an unmentioned subject. There's no attempt to reflect critically on the perceptions that guided the antiwar movement in the light of subsequent events in Southeast Asia that invalidate some of those perceptions.
One is drawn to the testimony of witnesses who appear modest and reasonably scrupulous, notably Paul Soglin, a former activist who went on to become mayor of Madison, and Ralph Hanson, chief of the university constabulary during the Troubles. Soglin's observation that "To this day, it's debatable what happened" when protesting students and city cops first clashed has the ring of truth. The documentation offered by Silber and Brown does nothing to clarify the episode.
In a different way it's also revealing to hear the recollections of someone like Ken Mate, who proves an invaluable touchstone of self-righteous misperception. Mate recalls having a cop in his gunsights one ominous night; if the cop used his weapon, Mate was ready to retaliate. "That cop never knew how lucky he was," Mate boasts.
He seems sincerely oblivious. The potential victim wasn't the only one let off the hook when Mate declined to pull the trigger.