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Robert Redford's Libels Against the American Left (and Film-Making)

Weathered Underground

by LOUIS PROYECT

Of the 647 film reviews I’ve written over the past 13 years, most cover political documentaries. When I review a narrative film, it is often about one made in a neorealist style with nonprofessional actors. My goal is to create a consumer’s guide for a leftwing audience more than anything else. When I review the occasional Hollywood film, it is in the hope that it will be something of substance. More often than not, as was the case with “Django Unchained” or “Lincoln”, I walk out of a press screening scratching my head muttering to myself, “What was I supposed to get out of that?”

Once in a blue moon, I go to a film with zero expectations, mostly out of a feeling that I have a job to do akin to taking out the garbage or cleaning the toilet. That was the case with “The Company You Keep” that opens on April fifth just about everywhere given its pedigree. From the publicist’s email:

Jim Grant (Robert Redford) is a public interest lawyer and single father raising his daughter in the tranquil suburbs of Albany, New York.  Grant’s world is turned upside down, when a brash young reporter named Ben Shepard (Shia LaBeouf) exposes his true identity as a former 1970s antiwar radical fugitive wanted for murder.  After living for more than 30 years underground, Grant must now go on the run. With the FBI in hot pursuit, he sets off on a cross-country journey to track down the one person that can clear his name.

As Grant reopens old wounds and reconnects with former members of his antiwar group, the Weather Underground, Shepard realizes something about this man is just not adding up.  With the FBI closing in, Shepard uncovers the shocking secrets Grant has been keeping for the past three decades. As Grant and Shepard come face to face in the wilderness of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, they each must come to terms with who they really are.

Robert Redford as a Weather Underground fugitive? Barbra Streisand’s love interest? The con man who avenged Luther Coleman? I supposed that the director might have picked the aging Adonis even though the notion of a 76-year-old playing an ex-Weatherman is a casting mishap of major proportions. When it turned out that the director was none other than Redford himself, I could see the logic. If the septuagenarian Woody Allen could cast himself in roles far too junior, why would some equally narcissistic and powerful Hollywood icon resist the same temptation?

His character Jim Grant is a single father raising an 11-year-old girl. When you see Redford and daughter on screen together, they are grandpa and granddaughter no matter how many times she calls him daddy. But even more nonsensical in terms of a time-line is Grant’s constant reminder to his interlocutors, including a callow and annoying Albany newspaper reporter (played by the callow and annoying actor Shia LaBeouf , one of the few things that made sense in the film) was his stock response: “That was 3 decades ago. You had to be there to understand why we did the things we did.” Let’s see. The film is obviously set in the present since there is a reference to someone updating his Facebook status. So what’s 30 years ago? That’s 1982, isn’t it? Didn’t any of the producers care that they were off by a decade? By 1982 most of the Weather Underground had turned itself in or made peace with American society.

Even more outrageously, the film revolves around a plot in which Redford is trying to clear his name of shooting a bank guard to death during an abortive robbery. The film opens with one of his accomplices, played by Susan Sarandon, being arrested by the FBI. After the Albany reporter is given an interview by Sarandon’s character, he decides to track down the rest of the gang pretty much by using Google. (I used Google myself to track down the email address of the man who wrote the novel the movie was based on—more about that anon.)

When I realized the film was charging the Weather Underground as having conducted armed robberies, I went ballistic. I was no fan of this group then or now, but this libel deserves to be answered in Counterpunch, a publication that is the voice of the left—of whatever stripe. The Weatherpeople only set off bombs at times when a building was unoccupied, at least to the best of their knowledge. They believed that bombing the Pentagon or some other symbol of the Vietnam War was a political act that might somehow weaken the Empire. Of course, the only effect of such adventures was to weaken the antiwar movement that was smeared in the press as being violent and un-American, etc.

There were bank robberies carried out by radicals, as anybody familiar with the Symbionese Liberation Front or David Gilbert’s Revolutionary Armed Task Force (RATF) can attest. Gilbert and Kathy Boudin were former members of the Weathermen when they robbed a Brinks truck in 1981. This was ostensibly the inspiration for “The Company You Keep” but this group had about as much connection to the Weathermen as the Weatherman had to the original SDS of Carl Oglesby. But why should Hollywood care about making such crucial distinctions? Everybody has heard of the Weathermen but who the hell would spend $13 to go see a movie about RATF militants, even if bankable stars like Susan Sarandon and Robert Redford played them?

For those expecting a thrilling man on the run type movie like “Three Days of the Condor”, you will be sorely disappointed. While Redford’s character is trying to elude the FBI, you never feel that he is in any kind of danger. But this is not even the genre “The Company You Keep” belongs to. It is instead a film about The Way We Were with Redford and his old flame Mimi (Julie Christie), who took part in the robbery, reconnecting after three decades. With Julie Christie, now 72, and the 76-year-old Redford you of course don’t get the high-octane passion you got with the young Redford and Streisand. It is much more like “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”. In one of the best dialog exchanges in the entire film, after Mimi and Jim Grant have their rendezvous in a Northern Michigan cabin, he tells her “You haven’t changed a bit.” Her reply, a “Yeah, right” uttered with an expression on her face that says, “You must need cataract surgery.”

In the cabin Mimi and Jim try to make sense of their lives. He says that he dropped out of the Weathermen because they stopped caring about people. She says that she still believes in the struggle, even though her time is spent smuggling marijuana rather than writing articles for Counterpunch or sitting in at an Occupy action. Her love interest, played by Sam Elliot, is another former Weatherperson. Guess what he does now? He is a day trader with a computer screen displaying the current prices of pork bellies, etc. Well, why not? This is what they call fiction, after all.

The most ludicrous moment occurs when Redford drops in on an old comrade who is lecturing college students about Karl Marx. All I can say is that his words sound like a William Burroughs Jr. exercise in which the professor cut the Communist Manifesto into pieces, shook them up in a hat, and then scattered them on his lectern for all the sense he made.

I was so rattled by this film that I came home trying to find a Twitter account for the screenwriter, one Lem Dobbs. As I understand it, Hollywood bigwigs tend to use Twitter—the perfect thing for superficial people. Dobbs is the pen name of Anton Kitaj, the son of the late painter R.M. Kitaj who assumed Bogart’s character’s last name in “Treasure of the Sierra Madre.” Unable to find a Twitter account for Dobbs, I continued my hunt on Google—just like the Albany reporter trying to track down the terrorists in the film.

I finally discovered an email address for the author of the novel that the film was based on. After reading my unkind remonstration, Neil Gordon—the dean of the American University in Paris—wrote back in defense of his novel but less so of the movie. My real target was Redford and Dobbs, who are about as easy to reach as Barack Obama or Quentin Tarantino.

After reading a sample of Gordon’s novel on my spanking new Kindle and reading Ron Jacobs’ review on CounterPunch, it is obvious now that Dobbs took gross liberties with the book, as is so often the case in Hollywood. Gordon refers to “The Committee” as being responsible for the robbery, a group that was made up of former Weather Underground members just as was the case with Gilbert and Boudin’s RATF. A cursory look at his prose reveals far more psychological depth and character development than found in the film.

After mending fences with the author, I probably owe him the courtesy of reading his novel. I also plan to get around to reading Kurt Anderson’s “True Believers”, another novel featuring a lawyer with a Weather Underground past. I understand the appeal that the Weather Underground has to a novelist. You really don’t need to bother getting up to speed on the arcane controversies that divided the “old left” Maoist or Trotskyist movements in the 1960s and 70s over the class character of the USSR, etc. I can barely stand such debates myself, even though I was in the middle of them most of the time. (Maybe that’s why I have no use for them now.) It is much easier to create drama from a bunch of people who have just taken LSD, had group sex, and are trying to decide whether planting a bomb at the Pentagon or at the State Department will make a Bigger Statement.

There is a dramatic story that can be told about the characters of the Marxist left, who in their own way were as deluded as the Weathermen. Maybe I’ll get around to writing it one of these days. You can bet it will be much funnier than any novel ever written about the Weather Underground.

Louis Proyect blogs at http://louisproyect.wordpress.com and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.