In many ways, it doesn’t seem fair to confront a man deep in his 60s about a something he did when he was just 19 years old. But not everyone is William Powell, the notorious, self-proclaimed revolutionary who wrote a handbook called “The Anarchist Cookbook,” a How-To guide to making bombs, silencers, booby traps and other dangerous devices to be the complete thorn in the side of the government. The book’s fans include domestic terrorists such as the 1995 Oklahoma City bomber, Timothy McVeigh; Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, who carried out the Columbine school shooting massacre back in 1999; and more recently, James Holmes, who is serving life in prison for the 2012 movie theater massacre in Aurora, Colorado. These men, and more, have been said have had a copy of the book in their possession or at least have found inspiration from it. Powell himself has written statements condemning its further publication and use, yet there it is for sale on Amazon.
But American Anarchist is more than just an overview of the book and its disciples. It also contains a lengthy interview with Powell, conducted by director Charlie Siskel (Finding Vivian Maier), who gently but firmly hammers away at Powell’s initial reasoning for writing the book and why he hasn’t done more in recent years to decry his work. After the book initially faded as a fad in the late 1970s, Powell decided to live a much less high-profile life as a teacher of special needs children, quite often outside of the United States. When the book began to come back into the spotlight, Powell claims he was blissfully unaware that it was being used as a handbook for terrorism around the world, at least until someone sent him a news article stating that one of the Columbine shooters had a well-worn copy in his room.
Director Siskel uses a decidedly bare bones approach to telling Powell’s story and the history of the book. He traces how the book’s notorious past has repeatedly (and perhaps justifiably) reared its head at key points in the author’s life and destroyed job opportunities for him, particularly stateside. But eventually, he did settle down, got married, had a child, and, at the time of the interview about two years ago, was living in a quiet, bohemian town in provincial France. Most of American Anarchist is simply a camera pointed at Powell, who is clearly confronting these connections between his book and a laundry list of terrible, violent moments in the world for the first time. His answers often don’t come quickly; sometimes he simply doesn’t have a response. In the end, the film is a portrait of a man going through an existential crisis before our eyes; either that, or it’s a beautifully rehearsed performance by Powell (I don’t believe that, but a few of his answers seem a bit too at-the-ready).
Some of the most accusatory questions from Siskel come regarding profits Powell received for the book. He claims his take was only in the tens of thousands, but the publisher says it was more in the hundreds of thousands. He admits being torn by receiving royalty checks for the “Anarchist Cookbook,” but it seems clear that he needed the cash at the time. The film is a fascinating document of a man caught in the web of his own life and decisions. When Siskel is given the opportunity to ask Powell’s wife, Ochan, a few questions, she answers them beautifully, even as her husband seems truly unhappy that the filmmaker has brought her into his line of questioning.
Perhaps the biggest shock of the entire story is that about a year after the primary interview was completed, Powell died unexpectedly in March of last year. And for reasons I can’t quite explain, that does make me feel bad, as if the guilt weighed on him so heavily that he just passed away. Many may see this tormented older man and feel compelled to forgive him for what he wrote, and to find out he’s dead denies the audience that opportunity to a degree. But it’s also a heck of a way to end a movie that is this oppressively heavy with emotion at times. American Anarchist is a truly fascinating and enlightening work.