THE COMPANY YOU KEEP
a film review
by Jeanne Powell
Robert Redford is back with a film we have been awaiting since the last Weather Underground activist came in from the cold at the end of the Carter administration. I do not mean to imply they all came in – only the ones who were tired of living a double life (Cathy Wilkerson in 1980), or who were caught in the commission of a crime (Kathy Boudin in 1981).
This political thriller about activists from the “days of rage” period is directed by Robert Redford with a screenplay by Lem Dobbs. Neil Gordon wrote the novel on which the film is based in part. In addition, the script most likely was inspired by the disastrous 1981 Brinks robbery in New York in which three members of law enforcement died; Cathy Boudin and David Gilbert were among those arrested. During their imprisonment, their child was adopted by radicals Bill Ayers and Bernadine Dohrn. And Ayers went on, years later, to become a friend of Barack Hussein Obama in another state.
As an influential actor, director, film producer and advocate for the environment, Redford had his pick of actors to bring to life the story of the subterranean radicals in Gordon’s novel, and he has brought a brilliant cast to this film.
Redford plays attorney Jim Grant (former radical Nick Sloan), a recent widower who lives quietly with his young daughter (Jackie Evancho). Shia LaBeouf is an irritatingly aggressive journalist for a small-town newspaper, intent on getting a Pulitzer (so he can keep his job). These radicals, who suddenly are news again when Susan Sarandon surrenders, were active before he was born. He smells a story and chases it without regard for consequences. In an attempt to establish communication during a jailhouse interview, Sarandon asks, “Do you have children?” “No,” LaBeouf says, “I barely have furniture.”
Julie Christie is an unrepentant leftist and sailor, using her boat to run marijuana across the Canadian border under the eyes of the Coast Guard. After all, she can’t be a threat because she’s just an old woman, right? Susan Sarandon is a homemaker and well-loved wife with a perfect suburban life, along with a secret she no longer wishes to keep. Chris Cooper is Jim Grant’s brother, reluctant to be involved in his crisis, but family is family.
And Terrence Howard is perfect as the ambitious FBI supervisor, determined to get on top of this aging revolutionaries business, to finally bring in … somebody, so the feds won’t look so incompetent. He is relentless, and he has technology the FBI did not have back in the day, when the Weathermen spun off from Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), and later became the Weather Underground.
Sam Elliott, Stanley Tucci, Richard Jenkins, Stephen Root, Susan Hogan and Nick Nolte round out the stellar cast of veteran activists who successfully live like your neighbors next door, who are the neighbors next door. They have kept each other’s secrets for such a long time now, never getting in touch until it was absolutely necessary. Some are willing to help Redford when he goes on the run; others rebuff him in fear for their own carefully crafted situations.
“The Company You Keep” is a well-paced political thriller as well as a morality play. What do you know about your neighbor next door? How long can someone live a lie? Is any act justified if the cause is righteous enough? And what about the people who have to pay for your mistakes – the bank guard who died in the botched bank robbery, for example, in Neil Gordon's novel? So many secrets, and what does an arrogant young journalist know or care about secrets?
Redford shows us many tricks as the fugitive with multiple IDs and disposable cell phones, and as someone who knows how to blend in a crowd, but there is something odd about the way he is running. Where is he going, and why? The suspense caused by his mysterious journey and by the pit bull tendencies of the young journalist carries the film.
In addition to the grieving families who lost loved ones when political crimes went awry, there are the children of the radicals – the ones they raised and the ones they gave to others for safety reasons. Sarandon turns herself in because of her children. Redford has to put his young daughter in safe hands before going on the run. And there are others…
For a while now there has been a need to revisit this subject in American consciousness, and not simply whenever the FBI has an arrestee in tow. We have Marge Piercy’s superb novel, VIDA, containing incredible detail about that period; Piercy was at University of Michigan with Tom Hayden, future California legislator; Hayden may have been one of those involved in writing the first draft of the Port Huron Statement for SDS. There is the excellent novel, DOWNRIVER, written by Peter Collier before his right-wing days. And there is a haunting memoir by a young FBI agent, one of the first to be sent deep undercover and who illegally operated in Canada. He never got into the inner circle of the Weather Underground which by then was said to be run entirely by women, but the experience affected him so deeply that he resigned and went to live in the mountains, not unlike some combat veterans from the American war in Vietnam.
In the wake of an unprecedented number of domestic assassinations in the 1960s, there arose significant political and social activity – the civil rights movement, opposition to the military draft and to the war in Vietnam, among others. This period also included the development of revolutionary movements around the world as a direct result of rising expectations after World War II. The radicalization of thousands of youth from comfortable and even wealthy families on every continent should not have been such a surprise; but apparently it was. See also Cathy Wilkerson’s FLYING CLOSE TO THE SUN and Susan Braudy’s FAMILY CIRCLE (concerning Kathy Boudin) about the company they kept.
An excellent accomplishment by Robert Redford, on a subject which has needed a good film for a long time.
“Protest beyond the law is not a departure from democracy;
it is absolutely essential to it.” – historian Howard Zinn
Causes Jeanne Powell Supports
Union of Concerned Scientists, VVAW (Vietnam Veterans Against War), Doctors Without Borders, Waterkeeper Alliance, PSR (Physicians for Social Responsibility...