Since every cell of you dies and sloughs away so many times in your life, can you be said to be the same you at 65 that you were at 20? Such questions power this frustrating doc about William Powell, the humanist adult who happens once to have been the young man who authored the first version of The Anarchist Cookbook in 1971. The Cookbook, as angry young men of subsequent generations know all too well, offered alongside its revolutionary rhetoric no-shit recipes for building bombs and weapons with materials you could find in any hardware store. A sensation upon its publication, the Cookbook has persisted as both underground legend and legit how-to guide, its formulae cribbed from military operations manuals. Even when out of print, it flourished online, often in bastardized and anonymously updated versions written long after Powell, abashed, had moved on with his life.
Charlie Siskel's film finds Powell trying to live a good life — he works with developmentally challenged children in far-flung international locales — while facing the fact that his youthful rage persists as inspiration for killers. Powell expresses surprise when Siskel (director of the excellent Finding Vivian Maier) confronts him with the fact that the Cookbook and its ripoffs still frequently turn up in the homes of mass shooters and homegrown terrorists. At times, the author seems disingenuous about his work’s influence, even as he’s written editorials asking publishers to cease publication. An early justification for his mindset while composing the Cookbook is unconvincing: “Violent groups —the Weathermen being one, the government being another — have access to this information and are using it. Therefore, why shouldn’t the rest of us have that information?” Sometimes, he insists to Siskel’s camera unconvincingly that he never expected anyone to try his recipes; more often, though, he speaks with pained regret about his legacy.
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Despite that, Siskel turns many interviews into interrogations, browbeating his subject, demanding dramatic apologies, eager to expose a hypocrisy that Powell doesn’t seem to have in him. Powell can be evasive and embarrassed at times — who wouldn’t be, faced with the worst of your own youthful mind? But Siskel seems to think this film is exposing a monster in the now rather than witnessing a man wrestle with his past selves.