Film Review: The Company You Keep

by Daphna Whitmore

The_Company_You_Keep_posterWhat motivates you? More than once the question is posed in The Company You Keep.

Robert Redford directs and acts in the movie, which is based on a novel by Neil Gordon about the  sixties’ militant left group the Weather Underground.  The Weather Underground grew out of anti-Vietnam War protests and were a faction of Students for a Democratic Society,  a mass movement with 100,000 members.

Redford made the movie on a $1 million budget. He is a genuine left-liberal and his pulling power is clear with politically-conscious stars like Julie Christie and Susan Sarandon and plenty more big names – Stanley Tucci, Nick Nolte, Richard Jenkins, Chris Cooper, Terrence Howard, Anna Kendrick, Brendan Gleeson – working for next to nothing.

Sarandon plays a fictional Sharon Solarz, formerly a member of the Weather Underground, who has been living in suburbia for thirty years under an assumed identity. Her arrest sets the stage for an FBI manhunt for others in her group. Will she disavow her revolutionary past? Not likely. Instead she explains her motivation to the ignorant young journalist played by Shia LaBeouf.

She tells him people were drawn into a movement against the murderous system and government waging genocide in Vietnam. There was the My Lai massacre, the killing of students at Kent State and Jackson State, the use of the draft; you got a number and waited to be sent overseas to fight a dirty war. The Weathermen decided civil disobedience and peaceful protests were not getting them anywhere, and they wanted to “bring the war home”. There was a revolution going on: “Japan, France, Angola — and I wanted to be part of it. . .  If we sat at home while our country committed genocide — that was violence.” Sarandon’s character challenges the reporter about what he is willing to take a risk for. For her part yes, she would do it again, but “smarter, better, different. We made mistakes, butwe were right,” she says.

The Weather Underground are depicted as people with friends and relatives, who have lost none of their conviction, but time has moved on and the movement is no more.

Redford’s character later tells the snoopy self-serving journalist: “Thirty years ago a bright young man like you would be part of the movement”.

There are many thoughtful observations made, including sharp criticism of shallow, sensational fact-deprived journalism. Stylistically there are things  to grumble about; at 76 Redford playing  a father in his 60s, looks more like a grandfather than a dad to the  lovely 11 year old daughter. She is played by singer Jackie Evancho in her acting debut. Actually, the cast is so full of stars they tend to outshine the characters.

There is intrigue in the story, enough to class it as a thriller, but its pace is slower and the story’s twists not tight enough to create the sort of suspense that audiences are use to.  Disappointingly, there is an ending that is as tidy as any Hollywood flick.

The film has been a fizzer at the box office in the US.  The Boston marathon bombings hurt the film and its sympathetic portrayal of the hardline leftists has enraged patriotic meatheads.

In an interesting interview Redford and some of the cast talk a bit about the politics in the movie: http://collider.com/robert-redford-brit-marling-thecompany-you-keep-interview/

There’s much about the Weather Underground the film doesn’t and couldn’t do justice to. Left out is a discussion about their experiments with drugs, group sex, their cringing white guilt, and their relative isolation from the mass movement.

It does however show that none of them betrayed anyone, and most of them remain unapologetic about what they were fighting against and for, while regretting some of the things they did.

This is a film with integrity, about integrity.

4 comments

  1. Certainly an interesting movie and well worth seeing. It basically endorses the 60s radical view that the war on Vietnam was wrong and lots of things in American society needed changing. It has a rather jaundiced view of the self-focused attitudes of many younger Americans today – relevant not just in the US! I agree that it’s largely a film about integrity and the journalist is left at the end confronted by the fact that the Weather characters in the film all have it and he doesn’t (well, up to the end of the film anyway).

    There are a number of memoirs by prominent Weather activists. Bill Ayers’ ‘Fugitive Days’ also pops up in the background in one scene. Cathy Wilkerson’s ‘Flying too close to the Sun’ is more reflective, although somewhat annoying in her new-found pacifism and attempts to present herself as just somehow being swept along by it all, particularly by the militancy of men in the organisation, as if she herself had no agency.

    The best Weather memoir, however, is Mark Rudd’s ‘Underground: my life with SDS and the Weathermen’. Rudd is as opposed to American imperialism as ever, but gives a fairly warts-and-all account of Weather, including his own responsibility. His book is the best for revealing how an idealistic group of the ‘best and brightest’ of their generation were driven to political madness by the horrendous war the US government was waging on the Vietnamese and by the realities of racialised oppression and inequality in a society that was probably the most screwed-up of all the capitalist societies on the planet.

    I just had a look at the discussion with Redford and some of the others on Collider. Some of what Redford says there is very interesting.

    Phil

  2. Louis Proyect just reminded me that, of course, Weather members themselves never killed anyone in any bank robberies. That was a device put into the movie.

    Phil

  3. Last night I watched the documentary ‘Weather Underground’ which was made in 2002. It’s well worth seeing. They did go to great lengths to ensure no one died in the buildings they bombed – and they bombed a lot!
    It has many of interviews with key characters including Mark Rudd.
    The film ends with his comments which resonated for me: “Our [the Weather Underground] understanding of what the position of the United States is in the world was right. It was this knowledge that we just couldn’t handle, it was too big. We didn’t know what to do. In a way, I still don’t know what to do with this knowledge. I don’t know what needs to be done now and it is still eating away at me just as it did thirty years ago.”

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