In 1970, at 19 years of age, William Powell wrote the infamous bomb-making manual and anti-authoritarian tract “The Anarchist’s Cookbook,” and in his compelling but ultimately sanctimonious documentary “American Anarchist,” director Charlie Siskel insists that Powell repeatedly berate himself for it. What starts out as a potted political history of a turbulent time and a righteously confrontational investigation into intentionality and personal moral culpability for the actions of others (and whether such things have a statute of limitations) turns into a self-righteously insistent harangue that leaves an especially sour taste in light of Powell’s sudden passing in July, just a few months after these interviews were filmed.
Initially it feels like Siskel’s approach may be warranted: Sitting in an armchair or at a table in his book-lined living room, the 65-year-old Powell does start out mounting a halfhearted and not terribly convincing defense of his most famous creation. He doesn’t own a copy, he claims; he hasn’t read it in years; and to the accompaniment of composer T. Griffin’s playful plucked strings on the soundtrack, he suggests, disingenuously, that he had never believed the information it contained would be actually used, certainly not in any large-scale act of terrorism.
These slippery, rather sophistic evasions are skewered by Siskel drily editing them up against excerpts from the book — diagrams of where to place explosive charges on a suspension bridge; step-by-step instructions on converting your shotgun into a grenade launcher; a handy recipe for making TNT out of commercially available ingredients. Time and again, the arguments that can be made for the book’s existence (freedom of speech; a belief that this information is safer in the hands of the people than solely in those of the untrustworthy, corruptible authorities) are implied to be highly specious next to the actual damage done by organizations and individuals who were later found to be in possession of a copy.
And of course that’s true — the emotive gulf alone that exists between airy theoretical notions of free speech and the human devastation of Columbine, one of the many atrocities whose perpetrators were found to own the book, is impassable. But there’s a leap in logic here that Siskel doesn’t really address: In his eagerness to get Powell to look inward, to reassess his own potential role in these terrible events as the author of “The Anarchist’s Cookbook,” he leaves to one side more difficult, but potentially more edifying avenues, such as whether the link between the book and those acts of violence is causal or enabling or coincidental.
Why ask such mammoth and difficult questions when it’s easier to grill Powell about his personal morals right there on camera? It’s easier, but it’s also cheaper, and it feels borderline cruel, not to mention repetitive, when Siskel continues to pursue ever deeper mea culpas even after Powell has confessed just how much he regrets writing the book in the first place. “Everyone does stupid things when they’re young,” says his wife Ochan, wiping down a counter, “but not everyone prints them in a book.”
Because whatever one thinks of “The Anarchist’s Cookbook,” Powell comes across as a fundamentally decent man engaged in a painful process of self-examination. He explains his route to radicalization as a troubled, unsettled child of the turbulent ’60s and ’70s, and further describes his impetuous writing of the book, his naïveté with regard to publishing rights, which means though it has sold a million and a half copies, he’s never earned more than pittance from it, and does not have the power to stop it from being printed. And he also explains how it’s become his cross to bear: Aside from a flurry of minor celebrity, and the occasional op-ed every time it recurs in the news cycle, “The Anarchist’s Cookbook” has brought the more mature Powell little but heartache. Retracted job offers (in his real career as an educator, working with developmentally challenged young people in deprived parts of the world), occasional death threats, and an indelible association with some of the most notorious mass killings in recent U.S. history. It is perhaps not particularly noble, but it is very understandable why for so long Powell tried to wash his hands of the book.
That is something Siskel will not allow, though, listing off all the mass killings connected to the volume as if he expects a clearly shaken Powell to personally apologize for each one, as though his shame and regret and complete repudiation of the sentiments and politics espoused in the book were not palpably obvious already. “Respect can only be earned by the spilling of blood,” he reads from the “Cookbook” and visibly winces. “Yes, I remember writing that. I remember being pleased with it, thinking it was a cool turn of phrase.” He sighs. “It’s absolute rubbish.”
In only his second directorial feature after the terrific Oscar-nominated doc “Finding Vivian Maier,” which he co-directed with John Maloof, Siskel proves his impressive knack for stumbling on rich and intriguing documentary subject matter. But his approach here is ungenerous, as though he feels the purpose of his film is to hold Powell to account. It’s a judgmental role for a documentarian to take, but worse still, he doesn’t seem to notice that he’s got what he came for. He closes the film out with a quote from Joseph Conrad’s “Lord Jim” that reads, “There is never time to say our last word — the last word of our love, of our desire, faith, remorse, submission, revolt…” when, if nothing else, “American Anarchist” must surely be the very last word on Powell’s remorse.