In his new film, “The Company You Keep,” director Robert Redford tells a contemporary story about what happened to a small group of Sixties radicals. Identified as former members of the Weathermen, aka the Weather Underground (an actual far-left organization that was active in the early 1970s), Redford’s characters are the ones that got away, evading arrest for a bank robbery that ended in the death of a security guard. They are now settled, under assumed names, into lives as ordinary citizens in small rural towns.
The plot is set in motion when one of the leaders of the group, Sharon Solarz (played by Susan Sarandon), is arrested by the FBI while she is on her way to voluntarily turn herself in after “thirty years” in hiding. (As has been widely noted, since the radical activities of the Weathermen took place in the early 1970s and the contemporary events are apparently taking place today, the math here doesn’t work. The timing is off by at least a decade.) The melodrama of the arrest—a huge team of FBI agents descends on Solarz with sirens blaring—is a blatant ploy by Redford and his screenwriters, Lem Dobbs and Neil Gordon, to earn sympathy for Solarz, who at this point in her life appears to be no more dangerous than your average soccer mom.
Another bit of melodrama, designed to earn sympathy for the characters, is the fact that the local lawyer who is asked, and declines, to represent Solarz, is a good-guy, first amendment type who just happens to be living in the small town in upstate New York where the arrest takes place. The lawyer, played by Redford, we eventually find out, is, in fact, another member of the Weathermen who has gone into hiding under an assumed identity.
There is no question that, as a filmmaker, Redford’s sympathies are with his band of outsiders, but his efforts at creating audience sympathy for them pretty much end with the overheated hokum of this setup. For the most part, Redford simply takes our sympathies for granted, and for a certain segment of the audience (specifically, Baby Boomers) this will undoubtedly work.
Those of us who lived through the sixties, who remember the Vietnam War, who remember Lyndon Johnson and Bobby Kennedy and Gene McCarthy, who remember Eldridge Cleaver and Cesar Chavez, who remember the 1968 Democratic convention, who remember Redford and his co-stars (not just Sarandon, but Nick Nolte, and especially Julie Christie) in their golden youths, are immediately swept back into Redford’s characters’ frame of reference.
Redford and his screenwriters make a perfunctory attempt to offer a justification for the Weathermen’s radical activities by giving Sarandon a speech about the frustration of the Sixties’ left at seeing the war in Vietnam drag on despite protests in the street and at the ballot box. “Our government was murdering millions!” she explains. What younger viewers will make of Redford’s characters, I have no idea. It seems doubtful that twenty- or thirty-somethings will be moved, much less persuaded, by Sarandon’s pronouncements. But those of us who lived through the Sixties don’t need an explanation; for us, Sarandon’s speech is both heart-wrenching and superfluous.
Baby Boomers don’t need to be won over. We reflexively identify with these characters—now college professors and businessmen and lawyers. We don’t want to see them behind bars. When they are on the run, we want to see them get away. These are, after all, the people we have become or, at least, would like to be.
How can we not root for a cast that includes (in addition to the afore-mentioned Redford, Sarandon, Nolte and Christie) Richard Jenkins, Chris Cooper, Stanley Tucci and Brendon Gleeson? A 76-year-old Robert Redford and a 71-year-old Julie Christie are still Robert Redford and Julie Christie—still, in their way, beautiful and iconic. They wear their wrinkles glamorously. With Redford in the lead, this movie isn’t just about the way we were; it’s about the way we are.
So when I saw the movie with my wife and with friends who were in school with me in Berkeley in the era of the Weathermen, we came out of the movie and all agreed that we found it engrossing.
And then a few days later came the bombing at the Boston marathon, and my feelings about this move started to shift. Suddenly I remembered that the people in this film weren’t just characters played by very famous actors; they were terrorists played by very famous actors. This is a detail that the movie glosses over.
Redford, while willing to appropriate the moniker of the real-historical Weathermen, is too skittish to own up to their actual tactics. The movie simply ignores the violent nature of the Weather Underground’s actions and their politics. In real life, the Weathermen were a revolutionary organization whose goal, however unrealistic, was to overthrow the U.S. government; in the movie, the characters’ goals seem limited to ending the Vietnam War or, more elusively, to undermining the “System.” In real life, the Weathermen are remembered for a series of bombings of government buildings; in the movie, the characters are involved in a bank robbery gone wrong—they didn’t mean for anybody to get hurt. Redford and his screenwriters have created an organization of accidental terrorists.
Even at this remove from historical reality, however, Redford seems uncomfortable with the implications of his plot, and, perhaps inevitably, he separates his own character from the others in the group. No Spoiler Alert is required to disclose here that Redford’s character turns out not to have been involved in the fatal bank robbery and is actually innocent. The trailer for the film pretty much tells us that: a reporter, played by Shia Leboeuf, explains to his editor, played by Stanley Tucci, that Redford’s character is on the run not because he’s guilty but because he’s trying to prove that he isn’t.
We did not, however, need this explanation or, for that matter, the fore-knowledge that Redford’s character was not involved in terrorist activities. Of course he wasn’t—he’s Redford. He has to be a good guy. (There is a famous anecdote told by the screenwriter William Goldman about his working on a screenplay for a Redford film—I think it was “The Great Waldo Pepper.” Redford insisted that one of his lines be changed, and when Goldman argued that the line was exactly what Redford’s character would say, Redford replied with something like: “Yes, but Robert Redford doesn’t say that.”) Redford not only backs away from the terrorist activities of the Weathermen; he even backs away from their left-wing politics.
Ultimately, “The Company You Keep” is apolitical. The title is a giveaway, as is the fact that the emotional high point of Sarandon’s big speech isn’t her denunciation of the government, it’s her declaration that “we never betrayed each other—over all these years.” What keeps this radical movement together, albeit underground, over three decades, is, it turns out, personal loyalty, not politics. In the end, Redford’s film seems to tells us, what matters most is the company you keep, not the cause.