American Anarchist *** / *****
Directed by: Charlie Siskel.
The Anarchist Cookbook was written in the early 1970s by an angry, 19-year-old young man named William Powell. The book combined information on weapons and combat, and how to make explosives, that Powell culled together from information he found in military pamphlets at the library, as well as Powell’s rage filled rantings calling from armed revolution in America to overthrow the corrupt system. It was published by a sleazy publisher looking to make a quick buck – and immediately caused controversy – a controversy that has never really gone away, although there have been long periods of time in the almost 50 years since it was published where it lies dormant. Powell himself sold off all the rights to the book for $10,000 at some point in the 1970s, so even though the book keeps on being published, he isn’t seeing any more profits. He has largely stayed out of the spotlight ever since.
The documentary American Anarchist is essentially all about Powell as he talks to director Charlie Siskel about why he wrote the book, and what he’s done with his life since. It seems like he quickly grew out of his anger – as many young men do – and became a teacher – one who often worked with kids with emotional problems. He seems more embarrassed by the book than anything else – he certainly no longer agrees with it, and thinks his angry rants in the book are now drivel. The book has affected his career – schools he applied to be more often than not sent copies of the book anonymously, which often sunk his chances from being hired. He seems like a quiet, intelligent well-educated, polite man. He has also mastered the art of denial – he has essentially buried his head in sand to almost all the incidents that his book may have help to inspire. He says he didn’t know of any of them until a friend of his saw Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine – and wrote to him about how the book was mentioned in the film, as being an influence on Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. At that time, he wrote a message for Amazon to put on the book’s page, saying he wants to the book to die a “quick and quiet” death. He wrote an op-ed for The Guardian 12 years later essentially arguing the same thing, when they approached him in the wake of another school shooting, in which the Cookbook was said to inspire.
Powell’s pleas of ignorance clearly are not enough for director Siskel – who grows increasingly frustrated throughout his conversations with Powell – as he pushes harder and harder (I would argue at some point, too hard) to get some sort of reaction out of Powell. He lists all the incident he could find – dating back to the 1970s and including things like the Oklahoma City bombing – in which the Cookbook was at the very least owned by the people who made bombs that killed people. He shows various Youtube clips of idiotic young people testing out the explosives Powell’s book told them how to make – including many, many close calls. Siskel very clearly wants Powell to take some personal responsibility for it all.
Honestly, I think Siskel pushed Powell too hard at points in the movie – not necessarily because I disagree with him - although, Powell is correct in saying that he never did anything violent to others, and the people who did, made their own choices, and certainly in the age of the internet, his book is no longer necessary for people who wants to know how to make bombs, or find the angry rantings of violent young, white guys – but more because I think the documentary is at its strongest when Powell trades to evade taking responsibility. I think about what a director like Errol Morris would do if he interviewed Powell, as Morris is a master interviewer at giving his subjects enough rope to hang themselves with, without every pushing as hard as Siskel does here (Morris does this brilliantly in both Mr. Death and The Fog of War – and tried in The Unknown Known). A simple, quiet scene like when Powell e-mails Senator Diane Feinstein, who called for the banning of the book, but giving up when he gets an automated response from her office, says more about Powell, and how he has dealt with the book than when Siskel pushes him to the point of anger.
In short, I think there is a better, more complicated documentary to be made about Powell and his book – which sadly, will never be completed, since Powell died a year after filming the movie took place. Siskel clearly feels righteous anger towards Powell, and wants the audience to as well – and up to a point, we do. A better, more confident documentary may well have examined the way in which Powell has compartmentalized the actions of his youth – has put it away, and doesn’t want to think about it anymore, because it’s easier not to. That’s something that anyone could relate to – and making us empathize with Powell is trickier than making us condemn him. As Powell’s wife says at one point, a lot of people have done stupid things when they were long – it’s just that most of ours didn’t get published.