The Company You Keep
by George Sax
The Company You Keep
Recently, actor Robert Redford produced, narrated, appeared in, and probably had a hand in directing a television documentary about the Watergate burglary and Nixon White House coverup. Redford played Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward in the movie All The President’s Men, who with Carl Berstein helped to reveal the lying and criminality. Redford said he agreed to make this movie because many people have either a hazy recollection of these events or none at all.
In his new feature, The Company You Keep, he’s tried to excavate another largely forgotten part of that era’s history: the Weatherman movement and its recklessly foolish attempts to incite an American political upheaval by bombing buildings. Other similar groups engaged in bank and armored truck holdups. The movie, adapted from Neil Gordon’s novel of the same name, is structured as a chase melodrama, but one of its appealing surprises is its effort to illuminate, even briefly, the history and motivation of the Weather Underground, as its members preferred to call it. The filmmakers have to do this retrospectively because the movie is set in the present.
The action commences when Sharon Solarz (Susan Sarandon), for decades a suburban New England wife and mother, gives herself up to federal law enforcement. In 1981, she and several comrades staged a bank robbery, during which a guard was killed. Her belated decision inadvertently sets off a chain of events that soon jeopardize former radical Jim Grant’s (Redford) quiet, equally remanufactured life as an Albany lawyer and single parent. Grant is among those still wanted for the murder, and when Ben (Shia LaBeouf), a brashly self-regarding young and ambitious reporter, begins to ask questions about possible links between Grant and Solarz, Grant goes on the lam cross-country, with both the feds and the clever reporter in pursuit. But Ben becomes perplexed. Grant’s actions and his route don’t seem to make sense for a man trying to disappear. What is he really trying to do?
The movie and its premise may not resonate with the many who don’t know much about the 1970s New Left’s rise and fall, or who don’t care. But the social and political consequences of that period are still influencing American life, even as it can be especially difficult to think about them during a permanent war on terror, and the terrible attack in Boston last week. In a personal essay almost 30 years ago, leftist sociologist Stanley Aronowitz wrote that the anti-Vietnam War struggle “gradually came to consume almost the entire new left…The war, then, was seen largely as a symbol of the degeneration of our civilization, of the futility of bourgeois rationality…” The Weatherman and others made a delusion-fueled bet that the US was in a pre-revolutionary stage ripe for extremist radical exploitation.
Redford’s movie imagines the lives of a few of these people long afterward as their past begins to catch up with them. The Company You Keep may be intended as a piece of popularly accessible cinema and fiction, but its plot turns are fashioned from real personal and public history. Redford and writer Lem Dobbs (really Peter Kitaj; he lifted his pen name from the Humphrey Bogart character in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre) have conflated, jiggered, and exaggerated the experiences of such actual radicals as Katherine Ann Power, David Ayers, and Bernardine Dohrn and what they’ve come up with works pretty well, for the most part. The picture has some good things going for it. First, there’s the cast, the most impressive gathering of estimable character actors this side of a Harry Potter movie. Richard Jenkins, for instance, who has a mordant, rueful turn as an Ann Arbor professor who teaches about the movement he once helped organize. Or Nick Nolte as a bluff, intelligent lumber business owner trying to keep his secret past at bay. (Nolte conspicuously refused to stand and applaud Elia Kazan when he got a special Oscar in 1999 because the director had given a congressional committee the names of alleged Communists.) Redford probably can recruit a stellar cast in part because he leaves actors room to perform, and these do that impressively, even in brief appearances.
The Company You Keep is rather unlike any of the eight other movies Redford has directed, all of which tend toward leisurely tempos and intermittent solemnity. He’s scarcely gone all Danny Boyle, or even Alfred Hitchcock, on us, but this one’s pacing and editing give it a moderately propulsive and taut feel, an unusual mode for this filmmaker. Only one of Redford’s directorial efforts is overtly political, the muddled, ponderously liberal Lions to Lambs (2006). His new one is a model of clarity and excitement in comparison. It doesn’t really give us a specific point of view, but it offers a perhaps unexpectedly sympathetic take on the seventies radicals and soi-disant revolutionaries and their widely disparaged ethos. In the course of the movie, two old representatives—Sarandon and Julie Christie’s characters—are given an opportunity to defend what they tried to do. Each in her way is defiant. Such political material is very rare in American motion pictures.
But the movie has the superstructure of a chase adventure, and it’s largely successful on that basis, with a couple of significant provisos. The most immediately relevant problem is Redford himself. At somewhere from 74 to 76 years when this film was shot (depending on your source), he’s really too old for his part. He’s unquestionably well preserved and fit-looking, but, much as he must have wanted to play Grant, he’s really no longer a credible action hero, even an aging one. But part of this movie’s interest is how close he comes to bringing it off. And part of that is due to the movie-star vibe and bearing he still brings to a part. Yet, this charm and glamour limit his effectiveness and always have. Redford is a probably self-limited actor. It’s easy to understand why Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman said it’s kind of hard to believe that this Jim Grant was ever a fiery radical.
Things aren’t helped by the slackening near the movie’s end, including a radical—no pun intended—change of heart and some reassuring Hollywood legal reasoning. Yet, The Company You Keep is good enough, both as entertainment and an earnest look at some of American history’s ironies and legacies, that you can regret its lapses. If that sounds like a recommendation, so be it.
Watch the trailer for The Company You Keep
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