Tuesday, November 24, 2015

well, you do seem awfully tied in to these people

Let us stick with rebels, but (semi-)real ones, and we will take them seriously. The Company You Keep references the Weather Underground right away, uses some news footage--

(Though I'm pretty sure it gives people's names that were not actually part of the organization... and, I trust my impulse here. I've written four papers (one published) about (at least in part) Weatherman (aka the Weather Underground Organization), the most recent just this past spring and I've been meaning to look into getting that one published. Thing is, there a few things I know a lot about in recent years--Groundhog Day and Weatherman are two of those things. Got a copy of the FBI file and everything. Anyway, my impulse on the name Sharon Solarz (Susan Sarandon) proved correct when we jump forward in time and that's one of our main characters. So, fictional.)

--lets us know that this is going to be about the past coming back to haunt the present. A common enough theme.

Solarz is arrested because of a bank robbery from decades ago--the event roughly correlates to a Brinks truck robbery that included several former members of Weatherman years after that organization had become mostly defunct--and lawyer "Jim Grant" aka Nick Sloan (Robert Redford) was also involved in that robbery but gets on the radar of a young reporter Ben Shepard (Shia LaBeouf) by not taking her case.

Sidenote: Redford is about a decade too old compared to most members of Weatherman, but he's got a great world weary look to him, and you can tell just by looking at him that he has been through some stuff. Chris Cooper is closer to the right age, maybe a year or two too young, but he may actually play older than Redford here.) (Richard Jenkins, who is just the right age, plays instead a member of SDS who never went with Weatherman (history note: Weatherman broke off from, and mostly replaced, SDS (Students for a Democratic Society)--correlating, I'd say, to Todd Gitlin in the real world. (Maybe mixed with a bit of Bill Ayers.)

I will try to stop referencing the real stuff except inasmuch as it specifically matters to the movie. Actually, it is interesting that this film is playing less like something tied to real history so far and more like a James Bond-style film, just with aged spies instead of top-of-their-game spies. Grant/Sloan leaves an envelope in a hotel lobby chair--custody papers--for his brother (Cooper) to pick up surreptitiously. The FBI arrive, and Sloan pulls a fire alarm to get away.

The FBI lets Shepard interview Solarz and I must turn to Richard Roeper's review of the film at rogerebert.com--as he points out that she "justifies/rationalizes the Weather Underground's use of violence... and it's up to an FBI agent (Anna Kendrick) to call bull---- and tell Ben she found Solarz's speech offensive. (She's right.)" Putting my tendencies as a historian with a taste for political subjects and a soft spot for 60s radicals--hence a couple of overflowing shelves with books by and about them in my dining room--I have a feeling I will disagree with Roeper. But, I am not sure that this movie is going to make an effort to support Solarz' views anyway. So far, that ex-60s radical setup seems like just that--a setup, not the story itself. Now, I would love a good movie about these things. So far, I've seen some fantastic documentaries, but nothing scripted that is anything more than tangentially related--one of the best depictions of these events (and entirely fictionalized) comes in Across the Universe, the jukebox musical built around Beatles tunes that I watched for a week earlier this year, and there the homegrown terrorist subplot serves only as a wedge between the other characters.

Anyway, just getting that out there before this scene gets going.

She explains how it wasn't "groovy" joining a revolution, that the violence around them was not abstract--not just deaths in Vietnam but also deaths at home.

Diana (Kendrick) simplifies it:

I feel like I just watched you get hypnotized in there. "I was just young, female, and opposing injustice"? That's her justification? That was offensive!

Yeah, mustn't oppose injustice...

Sorry. Politics again.

The movie--it's not quite the slick film it seems to think it is, that aged-spy movie. Instead, it's a slow-paced drama that keeps adding more characters and more locations (like a good spy movie, only much much slower) instead of really exploring the motivations of the characters at its core--and I don't just mean Sloan, but also Shepard and FBI Agent Diana or her apparent superior Cornelius (Terrence Howard). These characters are like pieces in a puzzle, the solution of which is not nearly as interesting as it would be to explore the shape of those pieces. So to speak.

Back to the political angle, again, though--Roeper ends his review with disbelief. He writes:

As for Nick Sloan, he's the one ex-Weatherman character we don't believe as a former activist so committed to the cause he would engage in acts of domestic terrorism on American soil. Of course a lot of real-life radicals from the 1960s and 1970s served their time, expressed their regrets and then created productive, peaceful lives for themselves. (Some haven't apologized enough or been punished enough to suit everyone.) But this community-oriented, tousle-haired senior citizen who likes to go for morning runs and dotes on his young daughter? THIS guy was running with outlaw rebels who believed such acts as bombing government buildings and robbing banks and killing innocent family men such as that security guard were justifiable?

Neither the script nor Redford's performance ever leads us to believe he was ever the kind of guy who would keep that kind of company, even back in the day.

I offer, immediately, as evidence to the contrary, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Plenty of people bought into Redford as an outlaw--and a fun one at that--at the very time that the real-life counterparts of his character here were becoming increasingly violent. And, on behalf of... INSERT A SIGH HERE. On behalf of scoundrels that dare to violence today, yesterday, and throughout history, they still remain human, they can still be "community-oriented" and can still go for morning runs and can certainly dote on their young daughters or sons just as any parent can. Roeper himself offers right there, that plenty of real-life radicals went legit as it were. The idea that those who commit violence are inherently somehow incapable of the things Roeper lists here... that notion draws me out of the movie to larger issues in the world today--and the kind of thing I might post on my political blog if I bothered to update it regularly--regarding Syrian refugees and Muslim radicals and a sense that the other side in a fight is inherently evil or inhuman, and I guess I am actually glad that Roeper has trouble equating the two things--Sloan the domestic terrorist and Grant the lawyer and father--because maybe someone watching this film saw that disparity and humanized the former instead of disconnecting him from the latter.

Back to the movie, the introduction of Rebecca (Brit Marling)--and the revelation that Sloan is not running from the FBI but toward a particular member of Weatherman, twists the mystery of the story in a new direction and distracts even more from anyone's motivations. LaBeouf's Shepard is generic reporter, dogged in his pursuit of the story with no reason to care. Redford's Sloan is aged-outlaw/spy/criminal out to see his one-time love before he's caught. The FBI agents are FBI agents, just doing their job and the movie makes absolutely no effort to get into their personalities, let alone their motivations...

Which is a disappointment not just because of my interest in Weatherman and its members, and 1960s history generally, but because I'm reading about Neil Gordon's novel, on which the film is based, and it sounds like it has so much more to it. Gordon interviewed former members of Weatherman to get started and put some real information into the book about the 60s, about the New Left, about Weatherman and its members and their motivations. Ron Jacobs--whose nonfiction book, The Way the Wind Blew: A History of the Weather Underground is on my shelf--begins his review of Gordon's novel with a line from Che Guevara:

At the risk of seeming ridiculous, let me say that the true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love.

I just wish this film had embraced such an idea rather than hit shallow beats into an ultimately vague story.

When Sloan finds Mimi (Julie Christie) it's too little, too late, but at least it's trying.

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