Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The Company You Keep

THE COMPANY YOU KEEP            C   
USA  (125 mi)  2013  ‘Scope  d:  Robert Redford                    Official site

This is the movie equivalent of Bill Clinton proclaiming he smoked pot in his youth, but never inhaled.  Here Robert Redford stars as a man with a connection to the Weather Underground, but he was never involved with any actual killings.  In both cases, these are sanctimoniously moral men used to having it both ways.  In real life, this rarely works, as people find it incredulous and far too inconceivable to believe.  This is the kind of film that gives liberals a bad name, as they appear to be morally superior and above judging themselves as part of history, which is exactly how Redford is portrayed in this film.  He was part of the problem without actually being part of the problem, remaining a valiant white knight who fought against the Vietnam War but remains innocent and squeaky clean against any pending legal charges.  It would be quite a different story had he actually taken responsibility for his involvement, as did Bill Ayers and Bernadine Dohrn, married activists when in 1980 they turned themselves in, as both were leaders of the Weather Underground and participated in the Days of Rage riot in Chicago in October 1969, as well as the bombing of the United States Capitol, the Pentagon, and several police stations in New York, going underground in early 1970, living under fictitious identities for a decade.  Charges were dropped against Ayers when it was revealed that undercover FBI agents were also involved in the bombings, while Dohrn received probation.  Despite passing both the New York and Illinois bar exams, she was turned down by the Illinois ethics committee because of her criminal record.  Nonetheless, both Ayers and Dohrn taught at the University of Illinois at Chicago and the Northwestern University School of Law respectively, where Dohrn was the founder and director of the Children and Family Justice Center.  After they vacated their outstanding legal troubles, both adopted Chesa Boudin, the child of Kathy Boudin and David Gilbert, two former members of the Weather Underground who were sentenced to murder in 1984 for their roles in an armored car robbery, serving nearly 20 years.  This brief bit of history contrasts against such a tame movie version that refuses to take a stand, as these are real people leading real lives, never regretting or showing remorse for their radical activism of the 60’s and 70’s, as the U.S. government has never apologized to the Vietnamese or those dead or injured Americans who lost their lives under the ruse of fighting the spread of communism in Asia.   

Based on the conservative political climate that exists today, the real political story could never be told in Hollywood movies, evidenced by Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar (2011), as the production company would be perceived as endorsing or advocating the events shown, even though it happened forty years ago when the majority of the country was actually against the war in Vietnam, yet the government persisted, using illegal and unethical FBI tactics under the COINTELPRO operation to infiltrate the civil rights and anti-war movements as subversive and potentially terrorist operations.  So what we get instead is this watered down liberal mix of a feel good movie that pats the writers on the back for attempting to deal with such a hot button issue in the nation’s history, without ever actually dealing with it at all.  Unlike much better films, Billy Ray’s SHATTERED GLASS (2003) or BREACH (2007), more intelligent stories about investigative journalism and trading government secrets that actually generate some tension and suspense, this film plays fast and loose with the details and specifics, filling in the blanks about who the Weather Underground were in a brief thirty second news report from the era, told in broad generalizations, never even mentioning the accumulating opposition against the war expressed through anti-war demonstrations and through dissenting 1968 Democratic Presidential candidates Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy (before he was assassinated).  While we do get the FBI’s point of view that this was considered an armed and dangerous terrorist group, never seen in any historical context, the actual members can’t even agree among themselves what they stood for, even after decades in time.  This muddled view of the American past is something of an embarrassment both to the right and to the left and to all viewers, as it doesn’t tell the truth, but finds a way to continually talk around what happened, using generalities in the absence of facts.  What this film does have going for it is a killer cast, featuring significant players even in small roles, but whose presence overall is a huge plus for the movie.  Shia LaBeouf is excellent as Ben Shepard, a dogged reporter from Albany, New York, whose persistence in digging up the past is what makes the film and gives it a narrative shape, especially the way he can’t play by the rules if he actually wants the story, where following valuable leads will always exceed narrow budget restraints, especially when it takes you on a circuitous path across the nation. 

When Sharon Solarz (Susan Sarandon), a vanished member of the Weather Underground from the 60’s, gets caught by the FBI, ironically it was on the way to turn herself in, where rather than living a life defined by fleeing from the FBI, it’s possible to have a second chance at life.  But her arrest stirs up the kettle, as it affects all the others who remain under secret identities across the country.  One of the first to understand the ramifications is liberal small town lawyer Jim Grant (Robert Redford), who has a 9-year old daughter whose mother died in a car crash a year ago.  For her sake, Grant, who is really Nick Sloan, still on the FBI most wanted list, disappears, leaving his daughter with his brother while he eludes the police and goes on the run.  Shepard got in a few early questions before he disappeared, writing an incriminating exposé, which gets the wheels in motion.  Solarz will only talk to Shepard in prison, giving him another exclusive, but which puts him at odds with the FBI who see him in collusion with the radical 60’s groups.  The rest of the film is a chase between several of the major players of the past, which include Nick Nolte, Richard Jenkins, who have somehow retained some semblance of their former lives, and Julie Christie, elusive as ever, still on the lam.  While there are various other connections to boot, where Ana Kendricks plays an FBI mole, Brendan Gleeson plays a retired police commissioner who handled a notorious Weather Underground bank robbery case where someone got killed, and Brit Marling is his well educated daughter.  Terrence Howard as the FBI agent in charge is the weakest link, as he is little more than a stereotype, adding no characterization whatsoever, while all the others feel like plausible people we might know that could conceivably be wrapped up in a circumstance like this.  While it’s seen as a race against time, there’s never much doubt about what will eventually happen, given a sketchy Cliff Notes history lesson of the era, told using the broadest strokes possible, where the important lesson of the day is to not make quick judgments, but we never hear what separated these radical few from the countless others who demonstrated peacefully, where the film doesn’t even attempt to bridge this gap.  In other words, it’s just another Hollywood movie where Redford’s character is a noble hero and the viewer is left to stand and admire.  By the end of the film, the character he is memorializing is so whitewashed and stripped of politics that he could just as easily be the reclusive Unabomber.  How far he has fallen from his own days of rage as the Condor in Sydney Pollack’s riveting THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR (1975), certainly one of the better fear and paranoia conspiracy films of the 70’s, where the moody synthesizer score from Cliff Martinez pays proper tribute.      


  1. The novel gave a much more nuanced look back at the period; either way I'm looking forward to finally seeing the film this coming Monday. I can't wait to see the 'killer cast' as you call it, in action.
    Just found your fab blog while I was searching for those amazing reflective images from Pat Garret and Billy the Kid to show a friend, and those images led me here to this great place. I'll follow by email.

  2. Thanks for chiming in, Sim.

    As you suggest, the novel probably allows a more thorough evaluation of the period, which is an interesting one, but the film turns it into a vehicle for Robert Redford to play the anointed hero - - pure Hollywood make believe, though well acted.