The Company You Keep
The Company You Keep is yet another political history lesson from Robert Redford; a man who has tried so hard to master the things, though thus far without much success. Redford’s last three directorial attempts have all fallen into the same category and been hit with the same comments and criticisms: he gets the great casts – boy does he get the cast, the poster for Company has to list the names vertically so that they fit – his shooting style is strong, if a little stolid, and the script from Lem Dobbs is a sharp recreation of riveting real events but even with such strong ingredients the movie ultimately ends up as form and flavorless, as nothing much of anything, and I don’t really know why.
The obvious answer is that all of his recent films lack the feeling of fiction, that they are so close to the truth that scenes watch like sentences from a History textbook. The flat fate of these films giving some credence to the claim that the best way to educate is through the emotions ; ala Spielberg’s films set in similar era’s and areas. Base on its synopsis though Company seemed to have the potential to be more sympathetic and character based than both Lions for Lambs and The Conspirator, so I thought maybe it might work a little better. “History is made by human beings. Through action and passion,” remarks one of the film’s characters, to which Redford replies, “‘Action and passion.’ Sounds like something a friend of mine used to say.” A telling moment given that all of the movies action and passion seems to have taken place in the past, before we come along to witness it.
The particular political content that Company focuses upon is the Weather Underground, a radical protest group from back during the Vietnam-era. Now, although I had heard the name this organization was still rather new to me and so I was interested to learn more about them; unfortunately then since it is set in the present day the film doesn’t really focus on the group itself but on its members, those retired and those still hanging on. The problem though is that the film ultimately doesn’t do enough to make the characters compelling in its place, primarily because there are too many of them to properly service. I didn’t leave the film feeling like I had learnt anything about the WU but nor did I ever really care about the characters; he chose to compromise both rather than cement one.
Although the story told here, that of a young journalist uncovering the identities of several key members and setting off a States-wide manhunt, could have been good, I can’t help but feel that a story told with these same characters back when they were active could have been even better. Every old friend that Redford’s character runs into while on the lam has a deep history with him: they were lovers, they fought together, they fought one another, there were power struggles, political differences and it all culminated in a single murder that ruined multiple lives. These events are never stressed or shown though, simply skirted around in dialogue delivered by versions of the characters who are different now, who are on some level at peace with that past and so all of the drama is all sucked out of those events, even though a filmic adaptation is usually used to pump drama in to such occurrences.
“Now we’re just a story told to children.” “I’m just glad someone’s still telling it.”
That said even these teases of Weather Underground tales are fascinating and you really need little excuse to watch the likes of Nick Nolte, Chris Cooper, Susan Sarandon, Stanley Tucci, Richard Jenkins, Brendan Gleeson, Sam Eliot, Stephen Root, etc. etc. even if they all seem to have simply shown up as a favor for Redford an not because their hearts were in it. The philosophy that it seems to smuggle at its core – that we should all have a conscience: act on it when it will help and not act on it when it will only cause more harm – is also a good one and similar to what he effectively stressed in Lions. Again though, as a whole I can’t really say that this is a strong or effective version of the film that could have been, nor is it anywhere near entertaining enough to simply enjoy on a surface level, despite some Three Days of the Condor style spy dramatics. For the sake of his legacy I hope Redford has another Quiz Show in him, but I fear that its all going to be politics from here.