Classic protest film 'The War at Home' back in theaters

The Academy Award-nominated documentary is back on the big screen to teach a new generation the lessons of the antiwar movement

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic

It's been nearly 40 years since the Vietnam-era documentary "The War at Home" hit screens, and for director Glenn Silber, there's no time like the present to revisit it. 

A scene from "The War at Home."

The documentary is focused on the antiwar movement in Madison, Wisconsin, in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Silber, who directed the Academy Award-nominated feature along with Barry Alexander Brown, sees many parallels between the period covered in the film and today's deeply divisive political atmosphere. 

"There is a second act for this film," says Silber, on the phone last week prior to a screening of a restored print of the film in New York. "It's really about having a deeper conversation about the nature of resistance and where it comes from. I feel like the last time our country was this politically polarized was around 1968, and I think you can draw a direct line from then to now." 

The re-released film, which begins a one-week run at Cinema Detroit on Friday, carries the support of Michael Moore, who tweeted last week that "The War at Home" is "THE film about resistance" while calling it "one of the best documentaries ever made."

Silber himself was moved to dust off the film after participating in last year's Women's March in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where the New Jersey native now resides. 

He took a DVD of the movie to an art theater in town and asked the programmer if he'd like to run it. He agreed, "and it was a hit," says Silber, who also directed 1981's Academy Award-nominated "El Salvador: Another Vietnam" and spent years producing news magazine stories for ABC and CBS.

That response inspired Silber to go through the process of restoring the film, and a Kickstarter to raise funds to re-release the film collected $38,000. With the cleaned up print heading into theaters — the timing, just ahead of the midterm elections, is no coincidence — Silver is excited for old audiences to see it again and new audiences to discover it for the first time. 

Silber, 68, was a student at the University of Wisconsin from 1968 to 1972, the sweet spot on which the film is focused. He was there in 1970 when a bomber targeted the campus' Army Mathematics Research Center, a pivotal moment in the Madison protests which resulted in one death and three injuries. ("One of the big lessons of the movie," Silber says, "is bombing is not a good idea.") 

He spent four and a half years making the film, combing through archival footage and interviewing members of the Madison resistance movement. Silber and Brown, who would go on to become Spike Lee's editor (he just did "BlacKkKlansman"), wanted to make the film right away, while the movement was still fresh in their heads and they were still young. The film shows the slow progression of protests from a few picketers with signs to full blown demonstrations that often ended in violence. 

Through a 2018 lens, Silber sees "The War at Home" as "a lightning rod to galvanize people and remind them that we've been here before." He plans to spend the next year bringing it to audiences in theaters and on college campuses, discussing its relevance to today and hopefully inspiring a new generation to become politically active. 

"I really feel there's a missing narrative right now," says Silber. "When you talk about the resistance, you flash on women's marches, you flash on the gun violence march, but I think what's missing is the connection between the period we're talking about in 'The War at Home' and the lessons that we learned. 

"We've been in dark political places before. And the last time people started fighting back this much, it wasn't a week, it wasn't a month or a year, it was seven to eight years," he says. "That's the kind of commitment it's going to take to get out of this."


'The War at Home'

Not rated

Running time: 100 minutes

Starts Friday at Cinema Detroit

Note: Glenn Silber will phone in and participate in a live Q&A following the 7:15 p.m. show on Saturday