Why did this all-American Midwestern city spawn a movement that is surely as close as our country has come to revolution in 200 years?
Barry Alexander Brown was there in the '60s, when the anti-Vietnam war rage seized a whole generation of the comfortable middle-class, a rage that panicked the governing powers into violence, that drove a president, some would say, to declare war on his own people, the politicized, maybe even radicalized, thousdands and thousands of young Americans.
Brown and Glenn Silber made the docuentary, "The War at Home," which brings back the stormy decade, 1963-73, in a way that shows its essential unity and logic from the firstrallies to the maturing of a national protest movement sweeping across all levels of society.
"I was in high school in Madison from '63," Brown said on a visit here recently. "Silber was at the University of Wisconsin there, so we covered a lot of territory. I guess Madison has always had a history of this sort of thing. Joe McCarthy didn't dare go there on his campaigns."
To many youngsters coming to live in a city for the first time, away from their parents and small-town life, fresh out of the pleasant oblivion of high school, Madison was a dash of cold water.
"These were bright kids, you know. They'd meet people from Chicago and New York who had enlightened parents, politically sophisticated, and they would have their consciousness raised. If was no accident that the Students for a Democratic Society and the Committee to End the War in Vietnam -- one based in the East and the other in the Midwest -- both had strongholds there."
Brown's impression from years of interviewing leaders and followers in the antiwar movement at Madision is that the very naivete of some students contributed to their willingness to go into the streets.
"If you don't know history," he said, "like what happened to the Wobblies and other groups, you're willing to take chances and put yourself on the line, push yourself farther each time."
Nevertheless, it seems clear from the film that at first the only violence on the part of the protesters was simply their massive, noisy, exuberant presence. If was the police who put on the riot masks and started swinging clubs.
As the movie notes, everything changed with the climactic bombing of the Army Math Research Center in Madison in 1970.
"There was more rioting after that, in fact the worst of all was after the mining of Haiphong harbor in '72. Stores were trashed, there was a shootout, a lot of people thought the revolution was really coming and bought guns. They were really alienated. But I don't know, there was something about that bombing that stunned a lot of people.
Curiously, there is no mention of Dallas, which for many was the beginning of hostility to the establishment. The assassination did come up in the rough-cut but was edited out, Brown said.
The son of a career Air Force officer, now retired, who never wanted his son to go to Vietnam, Brown comes to film from the theater. He directed a children's theater in Madison, later appeared in stage and film works in New York. He is working on a fiction feature set in Alabama, where he grew up.
"I'd met Glenn in Boston in '75, and we got very excited about this idea. We divided the work fairly evenly. We wanted to show how a bunch of prosperous intellectual people got so angry at being lied to and pushed around that they finally took physical action."
Later this month, Barry Brown will turn 30.