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THE COMPANY YOU KEEP glorifies some bad company…

Posted on April 30th, 2013
Posted on April 30th, 2013

by Coop Cooper

“People make mistakes.” Those are the words of Robert Redford’s character, Sloan, in “The Company You Keep.” Sloan is a fictional member of the real-life Vietnam War era group the Weather Underground. Dissatisfied with peaceful protesting, this radical group decided to ‘officially’ declare war on the U.S. Government by bombing government buildings and attacking domestic targets. Normally they would warn of an imminent bombing in order to facilitate the evacuations of citizens, but it didn’t always work out that way. The “mistake” in question is the murder of two police officers and a security guard when the organization robbed an armored truck in 1981. This actually happened and serves as the catalyst for the characters in this story.

The film begins as Sharon Solarz (Susan Sarandon), a fugitive responsible in part for the armored truck robbery, orchestrates her own capture simply because she was tired of living a lie in front of her family and children. Following her capture, resourceful reporter Ben Shepard (Shia LaBeouf) researches Solarz’s contacts to discover another Weather Underground leader, Nick Sloan (Robert Redford), a recent widower who was also hiding in plain sight. Exposed, Sloan abandons his daughter to protect her and goes on the run as Shepard tries to piece together the story behind the story.

The story is compelling and the characters are based off of real people. Sarandon’s Solarz harbors similarities to Kathy Boudin who did time for her role in the murders and is now a college professor at CUNY in New York. Richard Jennings plays a Bill Ayers-type character as a member who was once a criminal fugitive, avoided prosecution through a government declaration of amnesty and is now a celebrated academic and political activist in certain circles. In this film, all of the ex-Weather Underground members are portrayed as good people who got in over their head and are now trying to move on in the later years of their lives.

I like fallible, interesting characters but I always find a film difficult to swallow when radical political agendas play a part in the fiction. It ultimately becomes a heavy-handed attempt at persuasion towards one side that appeals to some of the audience while alienating the rest. Overall, these pet cause projects are box office poison. I doubt “The Company You Keep” is an exception and will most likely tank. Mediocre video and cable numbers plus a bit of Hollywood clout might help enough to fund Redford’s next politically-motivated project.

Every fugitive character pays in some way but at least one character gets a second chance, whether they deserve it or not. I appreciate stories with complex characters but are the fugitives in this film even likable? They make no outright apologies but eventually all of them show remorse, even after one horrifically offensive rant by Julie Christie’s character who declares the ends (read: murder) justified the means… and still do to this day. Her speech reminded me of an Iranian colleague of mine in film school who – a few years before 9-11 – claimed over an open mic that “There is no such thing as terrorism, only freedom fighting” (he was later expelled and deported for making very public death threats towards fellow students). I took exception to his statement for the same reason I take exception to the actions of the Weather Underground and all its members who allowed this domestic terrorism and loss of life to take place, no matter their perceived noble intentions.

I hope that Redford doesn’t think his character truly paid for his mistakes. It’s hollow to superficially assume someone responsible for, or convicted of, a terrible crime should go free because they are eloquent, idealistic, semantically persuasive or support a hip cause. Hey Redford, how about admiring and championing inspired-by-real-life people who’s deeds are unassailable? You did it at least twice before in “The Natural” and “The Horse Whisperer.” There are some inspiring people whose life stories would make fantastic movies, even if they aren’t edgy, controversial or politically sexy. Redford can keep his verbally upbeat, ex-terrorist-turned-Mr. Mom. Meanwhile, I’ll wipe his wasted efforts from my memory as I wait patiently for an uplifting movie about Mississippi football phenom, Marcus Dupree.

Rating: 2 out of 5

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