There are as many different ways into a troubling documentary film subject as there are subjective definitions of a fair shake.
The intriguing, bluntly confrontational "American Anarchist," opening Friday for a week's run at the Gene Siskel Film Center, speaks to both those truths. It comes from director Charlie Siskel, co-director of the excellent documentary-as-detective-story "Finding Vivian Maier." He's also the nephew of the late Tribune film critic after which the Film Center is named.
Siskel's subject here is William Powell, the man who wrote the notorious 1971 best-seller "The Anarchist Cookbook" in fit of brazen revolutionary defiance when he was an angry, disillusioned 19-year-old looking to make his mark. Culled from military manuals and other sources he found, among other places, in the New York Public Library, Powell offered a wealth of practical information about how make TNT and other explosives at home. Along with the recipes, "The Anarchist Cookbook" is packed with sentiments along the lines of: "Respect can only be earned by the spilling of blood."
He never lived it down. Powell earned relatively little money from the book's popularity. When copies of what he refers to, euphemistically, as "the cookbook" started turning up in the homes and apartments of terrorists and mass murderers, from Columbine to ISIS, the author's guilt and mortification pushed him away from America. For decades he and his wife worked around the world as educators and school administrators, focusing on children with special needs.
Siskel secured Powell's cooperation for a series of interviews at his home in rural France. Across four days in June 2015, the filmmaker questioned Powell on the touchy subject of the book, its bloody legacy and its author's culpability. Variously dodgy, wrenching, testy and sobering, Powell's answers often don't answer much. But Siskel keeps hammering on his subject, or target, until things get interesting.
At the Venice Film Festival last year, where Siskel's documentary made its world premiere, the filmmaker told me: "I have a lot of empathy for Bill. We all make youthful mistakes. His just happened to play out in a way most of ours don't — publicly, and with serious ramifications." Siskel said that going into the project, he hoped Powell would "be willing to look back at his life and face himself, by participating in this film." Things became "adversarial," he acknowledged, which is easy enough to discern in the finished product. "But he wanted to be pushed." Powell died the year after the interviews with Siskel.
"American Anarchist" has a tone that's at times not so much inquisitive as haranguing. In the years before his death Powell disowned the book, though if an author can be equal parts in denial and in confessional, that's the Powell we see here. Did "The Anarchist Cookbook" qualify as a legitimate if provocative publishing phenomenon, or was it simply an object lesson in the dangers of free speech? Did Powell take too long to speak and write about his regrets? There's a moment in "American Anarchist" when Ochan, Powell's wife, notes that "we all do dumb things. But not everyone prints them in a book."
Writers or not, we all carry our former selves inside of the people we became, and are becoming still. Siskel's movie — flawed, somewhat limited but never dull — makes Powell eat his words and then, in metaphorical terms, write the restaurant review.
"American Anarchist" — 3 stars
No MPAA rating
Running time: 1:20
Opens: Friday (runs through April 20), Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St.; siskelfilmcenter.org.