Movie Review: “The Company You Keep” – posted 4/28/2013
Watching Robert Redford’s new movie, “The Company You Keep”, was a compelling and entertaining experience. The movie moved right along with good pacing, plot, and a fine collection of characters. The movie is based on a novel by Neil Gordon. I had a degree of trepidation about the movie beforehand. Hollywood can be so superficial, two-dimensional and can get a lot wrong. I have to say I was pleasantly surprised by this movie.
Its portrayal of old 60’s radicals was not too bad which is a compliment. It helped that there was so much star power. Along with Robert Redford who acted and also directed, Susan Sarandon, Julie Christie, Nick Nolte, Stanley Tucci, Chris Cooper, Sam Elliott, Terrence Howard, and Shia LaBeouf all had meaty roles.
The story revolved around a bank robbery done by the Weathermen over 30 years ago in which one of the robbers murdered a bank guard. The Weathermen in and around the robbery went underground and subsequently created new cover identities. Redford played a widowed public interest lawyer with a young daughter. When a member of their group played by Susan Sarandon is captured by the FBI, the plot is set in motion. Redford has to disappear and goes on a quest. A young reporter played by Shia LaBeouf pursues the story. Along the way, Redford meets up with his old comrades who still remain very distantly connected.
There are some fun things. The interplay between the generations was well done. Both Sarandon and Redford get to voice 60’s style indignation about the young who appear to believe in nothing beyond their careers. I was reminded of a familiar dialogue I have had with my son Josh:
Josh: ” Dad, your generation ruined the world.”
me: “Josh, your generation is a bunch of functional illiterates.”
Redford does actually present a more nuanced view than I am articulating. He shows the range of responses the old radicals had to the crime committed as well as their response to the system they had hated. He is able to use the collection of weathered old radicals to show feelings of regret, pride, anger, loyalty, and pain about choices made as they lived their later, post-Weathermen lives. He also shows growth on the part of his young character who plays the reporter.
Of all the co-stars, I enjoyed the Julie Christie character, Mimi Lurie, the most. Christie played an unreconstructed, slightly unhinged, radical who had not changed since the old days. While her former comrades seemed to have varying degrees of regret about some of their actions, not Christie. She had made the jump to dope trafficker, another way she continued to allegedly oppose the system.
I do think Redford tried to do a sympathetic critique of the old radicals. At one point, one of the comrades who had transformed into a college professor says to Redford about the murder at the bank, “We were supposed to be a peace movement.” I do think that captured the problem reflected in the Weathermen’s craziness.
Looking back, I have a hard time mustering any sympathy for the old Weather viewpoint. While I probably have not seen some of their self-criticisms, I have found most of them insufficiently self-critical. They typically say the war on the Vietnamese and the failure of the government to stop the war led them to take their actions. The “bring the war home” perspective that led to bombings and left wing terrorism was stupid, self-destructive and it legitimately alienated huge swaths of Americans who were sympathetic to an anti-war perspective. The Weathermen reflected a form of impatient, infantile radicalism. They did not understand America and anything about how positive social change can be advanced by radicals and progressives.
In America, we want things quickly. Instead of the patient work of building a movement that is democratic, socialist, and respects civil liberties and the rule of law, the Weathermen blew stuff up. While I respect the sincerity and motivation of old radicals, as has been shown many times, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Redford’s movie provides a good vehicle for discussion of the Weathermen and what was wrong with their approach. Radicals and liberals should without any equivocation endorse non-violence as they pursue change. The Weathermen should certainly not be romanticized and I do not think Redford indulges in that. He is mostly about telling a good story.
I usually find it depressing to check movie listings to see that most of what is coming out is fare for 12 year olds. Looking today, there is Scary Movie V, Evil Dead, GI Joe Retaliation, and the Croods, whatever that is. Not really for adults. “The Company You Keep” is that rare adult movie that comes along too infrequently. I expect it will be particularly enjoyable for boomers.