Review: ‘American Anarchist’ questions responsibility

The author of ‘The Anarchist’s Cookbook’ is put on trial, of sorts, in Charlie Siskel’s probing documentary

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

In 1971, “The Anarchist Cookbook” was published, acting as a sort of how-to instruction manual for would-be terrorists. In the years since it has been linked to numerous perpetrators of violence, including those behind the Oklahoma City bombing and the Columbine High School massacre, for starters.

What responsibility does the book’s author, William Powell, bear in those attacks? That’s the question posed by “American Anarchist,” Charlie Siskel’s alternately probing and troubling documentary, and its answers are more complex than you may expect.

The movie catches up with Powell as an early 60-something living off the beaten path in Massat, France. He’s embarrassed by the book and its “over-the-top, exaggerated rhetoric,” written when he was 19 and angry at the world. But “The Cookbook,” as he calls it, has followed him throughout his life, even as he became a teacher and worked with emotionally impaired children in far off nations.

Siskel (nephew of famous film critic Gene) sits Powell down for a series of interviews about the book and its role in countless terror plots. Powell has publicly disavowed “The Cookbook” on numerous occasions, first in an author’s note on Amazon and later in a 2013 Guardian op-ed.

That’s not good enough for Siskel, who’s looking to shame Powell and rub his nose in the mess his book has made, or at least played a role in carrying out. The doc becomes as much about Siskel seeking his “The Jinx” or “The Act of Killing” moment as it is about Powell, who is thoughtful and remorseful if somewhat willfully ignorant about the extent of his book’s influence. “American Anarchist” is an interesting look at accountability on several different levels.

(313) 222-2284


‘American Anarchist’


Not rated: Language

Running time: 80 minutes

At Cinema Detroit