“These are things I am not proud of, and I find it hard to speak publicly about them and to tease out what was right from what was wrong. I think that part of the Weatherman phenomenon that was right was our understanding of what the position of the United States is in the world. 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's still eating away at me just as it did 30 years ago.” -- Mark Rudd, “The Weather Underground” (2002)
As someone interested in the history of revolutionary movements in the United States, I find the case of the Weathermen (or Weather Underground) an abiding fascination. My college buddy from Denmark, Ole, wrote his thesis about them: “Bring the War Home,” he called it. Now, I wasn’t born until 1971, but from what I've heard his title sums up what they were about. They wanted to make it impossible for people to knock about as if the murderous Vietnam War wasn’t going on. Throwing bombs, they decided, was the only way to do it. They could be brave: they were willing to get their heads cracked. They claim to have been very careful not to hurt human beings. Still, people got hurt: they managed to blow up two of their own when one of their bombs went off in a Greenwich Village townhouse.
It seems so obvious today: Hey, don't go around throwing bombs! (It seems that it was obvious at the time as well, to many who otherwise shared the Weathermen's analysis on Vietnam and U.S. imperialism). I guess what fascinates me is how it came to seem like a good idea to some young people of conscience. “The Company You Keep” is a thriller, but at heart it asks the same kinds of questions the Weathermen have been asking themselves ever since.
In the world of this move, the Weathermen staged a bank robbery in which one of their ski-masked members murdered a guard. (This is probably based on the real-life Brinks truck robbery of 1981 perpetrated by a handful of leftover Weathermen.)
Jump to 30 years later. Living as a fugitive, Susan Sarandon has invented an identity as a suburban soccer mom. She has decided she must turn herself in. In one of my favorite scenes of the year, she explains her reasons for coming out of the closet. Sarandon’s wise performance touches on so many things here—sorrow, empathy, but also flashes of anger and defiance. Her interviewer is Shia LaBeouf, pretty good as a callow, doe-eyed young local journalist striving for the big scoop. While he stands for nothing in particular, she sees something in him, some kind of spark of integrity.
When we meet Robert Redford, he is a happily-practicing local lawyer with an 11-year-old daughter (Jackie Evancho). When LaBeouf discovers his secret identity as one of the Weathermen from the robbery, Redford goes underground. First he must shepherd his daughter to his brother (Chris Cooper), with whom he hasn’t spoken in decades, all the time staying one step ahead of a FBI man (Terrence Howard).
We believe Redford as a lawyer. Once he's on the run, we see weary regret in the crags of his face, but also the palimpsest of the charismatic young radical. There's a poignancy to the golden boy in autumn.
Redford runs to clear his name, showing up in the lives of a network of people from his past who can point him in the direction of Mimi, the woman who still haunts his dreams. Nick Nolte rings true as a good-humored, raspy-voiced old wreck of a working-class radical. Richard Jenkins is memorable as a popular professor who is not at all happy to see his old friend. We first see him lecturing about social change, considering a number of theories, Marx included. You can almost hear him arguing with his younger self. The script, quite good, is by Lem Dobbs, from the novel by Neil Gordon. Thanks to incisive writing, in just a few moments we understand their relationship: comrades who disagreed even at the time. We were a peace movement, for Christ’s sake, exclaims the professor. Still, he’s there for him when the chips are down. Just like he always was.
In Big Sur we find Mimi (Julie Christie, still striking), an unreconstructed revolutionary and major grass dealer living with Sam Elliot in an open redwood house high above the sea. When she learns Redford is on the run, she takes off as well. Almost instinctively, they know where they will meet: at the deserted lakeside cabin deep in the woods where they’d hidden out 30 years ago. (It might have been more effective had Mimi not been revealed until the end.) Over a fire they rekindle the past, and he asks her to come forward to clear his name.
Meanwhile, LaBouef investigates a mystery involving the police officer who investigated the bank robbery (Brendan Gleeson), who has a beautiful adopted daughter (Brit Marling), about 30 years of age. Hmmm.
Amanda Kendrick plays a young FBI officer who is offended by Sarandon’s justifications for the bombings. She’s too young to understand what a horror Vietnam was. After listening to Sarandon in the scene I mentioned, her only response is, well, terrorists justify terrorism. At first her words annoyed me. Then I realized she had a point. Maybe the worst of the Weathermen did embody that bottomless nihilism that Philip Roth so memorably tried to understand in "American Pastoral." I think, though, that for most of those kids human life mattered profoundly. That’s why they got into it in the first place.
The weakness of “The Company You Keep,” finally, is the way it ties everything up with a neat bow. Making Redford turn out to be innocent feels a bit like a betrayal of the emotional heart of the movie, which was with people for whom comforting answers were not easy to find. It's a movie, true, but the happy ending seems like a sidestep after what had been an honest look at people--sometimes heroic, sometimes tragic--for whom redemption is elusive. If you have a conscience, how do you live with something that you can't swallow and you can't spit up?
--May 6, 2013
Key to ratings:
***** (essential viewing)
*** (worth a look)