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 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; more often, though, he speaks with pained regret about his legacy. 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.