It has finally happened. We knew it was coming. With the release of Robert Redford's film adaptation of Neil Gordon's book The Company You Keep, the Weather Underground has achieved the status of a cultural trope. Starting with Sam Green and Bill Seigel's documentary, following Bill Ayers' eight months as a punching bag for the McCain-Palin campaign, and embellished by a half a dozen tell-some memoirs, the Weather Underground is certainly better known now than it was when the WU was out there in open rebellion and active resistance. I was part of that radical movement; I was a cadre in the Weather Underground. And I look at a film like this with a particular angle of regard and engagement.
I decided not to search for precision. What's the use? No one can get it exactly right -- partly because the chaos of life as its lived is always rendered a little anemic when a narrative is crafted or imposed and partly because history is always an interpretive event in the service of the present. When you have experience in any historical moment you find the cultural representations to be bare shadows of the original. But in those shadows one can find some glittering truths that are perhaps more important and revealing than this or that fact of what really happened.
Hollywood has a pretty bad record in capturing historical moments. Can Viva Zapata really speak to the Mexican Revolution? But then again Easy Rider, for all its inaccuracies, conveys some insights in a laser-like way. Good art conveys truths beyond facts. Think of Heart of Darkness -- a meditation of European colonial racism that is much more devastating than any of the writing of sociologists and historians of the time.
Dozens of books, songs, and movies have been made about the Free Speech Movement in Berkeley in 1965. UC Berkeley has even opened a "Free Speech Café" on campus -- cooptation of course. But several representations of the FSM convey interesting truths, from posters to photo exhibits to memoirs. And the way it is carried forward in our collective memory has its own importance.
This is reason enough to debate these Weather Underground stories and to examine the reason they have resonance, the current needs in the public discourse that such stories speak to. It's probably safe to say that there won't be a WU café on the site where the Chicago Haymarket police statue was blown up -- twice. But the question of resistance to imperialist war and even genocide committed in our name is certainly a massive ethical and political challenge to people, especially White people, in the US today. The problem of being complicit in such violence by simply doing nothing is a moral conundrum that living in America forces on us. And there is no easy answer to what next steps to take after the government has not only rejected calls for peace but has declared secret war against protestors. And the Weather Underground trope is one way we seem to be talking about this now.
Neil Gordon's novel The Company You Keep was a powerful and moderately successful meditation on the aging of radicals and how they look at the world -- the world they tried to change and the world they inhabit today. It is written almost entirely as a series of emails between the main characters. The film is more an adventure. It is Robert Redford reprising his role in Three Days of the Condor, with a lot of skulking along looking over his shoulder (which, by the way, you should never do if you are seeking to ditch a tail, it just makes you look paranoid and calls attention of all cops on the street). Only now Redford has a lot more wrinkles -- as we all do.
Some things about the film are awesome. Susan Sarandon for one. Julie Christie for another. These two women are at the apex of stunning careers and have brought real complexity and power to their roles. Sam Elliot and Nick Nolte are also fantastic -- old and gravelly, still channeling their 60s personas. The young reporter Shia LeBeouf is, well, Shia LeBeouf. The film poses the challenge: what did you do, what could you do, in the face of your government committing massive international crimes? I love Susan Sarandon, in prison, saying, "We made a lot of mistakes. But we were right."
Redford and the plucky reporter have a smart and revealing exchange - the encounter of age and youth:
Redford (flashing on LeBeouf for assuming everything about the WU was simply criminal): "It must be nice to see the world so clearly."
LeBeouf shoots back without hesitation: "Didn't you once?"
I suppose the certainties of any era are worth challenging. And we would not be human if we did not change in time. According to The Company You Keep, the main thing that mellows the old radicals is having kids. No wonder the right wing is against birth control -- more babies seems to make people conservative. But we can be generous with this device. Really, how can you argue with the importance of the children? Having kids does change us, certainly did to me. But it also made my view of the country more radical, the imperative of advancing a more equitable world more urgent.
Another problem: It's a pretty white production and in this it misses the reality of the radical movement of the 70s as well as America today. Funny that they would cast the only black guy as an FBI agent, going against the reality of this super-white government agency. Terrence Howard has come a long way from his role as a southern pimp in Hustle and Flow. You would never know from this that the FBI conspired to harass, arrest, and even kill black radicals and revolutionaries in a vicious program called Cointelpro which induced much of the militant and radical push-back against the state.
In this regard Redford betrays that white blind spot. To tell the real story you have to recognize that everything progressive that happens in this country has to look at the fundamental wound in our body politic, the legacy of stolen Indian land, of slavery and its new iterations, and at the forced tribute from peoples around the world. The critique from this reality, from these people, is what powers the resistance. It is, after all, a hard thing for an American, particularly one with white privilege, to break with the common sense of American culture which accepts militarism, accepts a rigid caste system in housing and education, accepts our current engagement in three wars, accepts the idea that we are always bringing freedom, accepts drone killings, accepts the need for secret government powers.
The reality of the radical 70s can't really be reduced to a Robert Redford action film; nor can the complexity of the Russian Revolution be captured by Warren Beatty doing Reds. But who can complain about your old friends and comrades being played by the likes of Christie, Sarandon, and Nolte? And there's nothing wrong with an exploration of the existential responsibility of living in America during the Vietnam War and today.
Remembering Roger Ebert, I give it "Two thumbs up."