A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. In 1969, a 19-year-old New Yorker named William Powell, jacked up on revolutionary politics and infuriated by the growing police brutality against antiwar protesters, began compiling The Anarchist Cookbook, a how-to manual for sowers of mayhem. The book included detailed instructions for spying on and sabotaging electronic communications, using lethal weapons, and constructing bombs and booby traps. It contained recipes for TNT and LSD; it explained how to build a silencer for a pistol or machine gun and how to convert a shotgun into a grenade launcher. Copyrighted by independent publisher Lyle Stuart and published in 1971, The Anarchist Cookbook would reportedly go on to sell some two million copies over the years, and it’s still going strong. Count among its loyal fan base James Eagan Holmes, currently serving life in prison for the 2012 movie-theater massacre in Aurora, Colorado; Timothy McVeigh, who killed 168 people when he blew up the federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995; and Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, who carried out the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School.
For American Anarchist, which premiered last year at the Chicago International Film Festival and opens Friday for a commercial run, documentary maker Charlie Siskel (Finding Vivian Maier) tracked down William Powell, then in his mid-60s and living in Massat, France. Powell had long since disowned the book, converted to Anglicanism, and become a teacher of special-needs children. He issued a statement on Amazon that he wished the book were no longer available, and he reiterated his position in a 2013 column for the Guardian. “The anger that motivated the writing of the Cookbook blinded me to the illogical notion that violence can be used to prevent violence,” he wrote. “I had fallen for the same irrational pattern of thought that led to U.S. military involvement in both Vietnam and Iraq.” Interviewed by Siskel, Powell seems to have reached some sort of equilibrium with the past, regarding the book as only part of a life since filled with more positive accomplishments. But there’s no getting the genie back in the bottle.
Siskel, to his credit, keeps picking away at Powell’s public stance. “I have never held the copyright, and so the decision to continue publishing [the book] has been in the hands of the publisher,” Powell wrote in the Guardian. Yet Siskel gets Powell to admit that he might have squelched the book forever when Lyle Stuart went bankrupt; instead, because he needed money at the time, he accepted a $10,000 payment for all future royalties. The most uncomfortable sequence shows Siskel grilling Powell about incident after incident linked to the book: in 1976, the car-bomb death of a reporter investigating organized crime; that same year, the hijacking of a TWA flight by Croatian radicals; in the mid-80s, a bombing campaign against abortion clinics; in 1989, the mail-bombing assassination of a federal judge; in 1995, the Oklahoma City bombing; in 2005, the London transit bombings; in 2012, the Gabrielle Giffords shooting; and finally, later that year, the slaughter in Aurora, Colorado, that left 12 dead and 70 wounded at a screening of The Dark Knight Rises.
In every case Powell claims ignorance, reminding Siskel that he’s been an expatriate for years and explaining that he hardly spends all his time investigating terrorism on the Internet. “This is the first time that I’m becoming aware of the laundry list of associations that the book has had,” he tells Siskel. Pressed by the filmmaker, Powell squarely takes responsibility for how The Anarchist Cookbook has been used; but later he wonders if he’s any more culpable than factory workers at Colt or Smith & Wesson. In his own defense, he reveals that copies of the book were used to blackmail him when he was teaching in Tanzania, and that his authorship has been a perpetual roadblock to his education career. Powell never lived to see American Anarchist—he died of a heart attack last July, at age 66—and that’s probably for the best. He comes off as a tragic figure: a teacher haunted by his most spectacular lesson, and a man of learning who, where his own guilt was concerned, took care not to learn too much.
Gifted, a comic drama from the sure-footed director Marc Webb ((500) Days of Summer), also treats learning as potentially dangerous. The story involves three generations of women with extraordinary math skills: Mary (Mckenna Grace), a six-year-old prodigy living happily with her no-account uncle in Florida; her mother, Diane, who was poised to solve a major mathematical problem when she took her own life; and Diane’s mother, Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan), who gave up her own academic career to raise a family, drove Diane to pursue the fame and honor she herself was denied, and now wants to wrest custody of her genius granddaughter from her son, Frank (Chris Evans). Compared to William Powell, little Mary may be exceptionally gifted, and her story involves the discovery rather than the dissemination of knowledge. But in both cases you sense a young person approaching a crossroads that will decide his or her fate, and feel a subtle dread that the power of information might sear a person’s life forever.
Written by Tom Flynn, the movie comes down hard on the side of “normalcy,” defined in this case as knowing no more than anyone else. For six years Mary has lived a cloistered existence, learning how to solve differential equations and deliver wicked one-liners. But the truant officers have finally caught up with Frank, and Mary heads off for her first day at elementary school, where she makes withering pronouncements in class and stuns her sweet teacher (Jenny Slate) with her advanced multiplication skills. Before long the principal has lined up a scholarship for Mary at a school for the gifted, and Evelyn, a pinched harridan with a crisp British accent, has swept back into Frank’s life to reclaim the little girl and stage-manage her education. Evelyn is full of talk about Mary living up to her potential, but Frank, his unhappy sister’s confidant, sees through all that: “You’re gonna bury her in tutors and you’re gonna loan her out to some think tank.”
As scripted, Evelyn is too vicious to be persuasive, and Flynn undercuts her morally by stressing her lust for recognition. In one scene Evelyn takes Mary to the Clay Mathematics Institute and shows her the wall of fame for the Millennium Prize problems, where Diane’s image would’ve been displayed had she succeeded. At the institute, Mary demonstrates a genius so acute that one assumes she’s headed for a life of worldwide prominence, and nothing would please her grandmother more. For Evelyn, knowledge is the route to immortality—the very thing William Powell won, and may have wished he hadn’t. v