As for what others do, by the word of your lips
I have avoided the ways of the violent.
The Pharisees and their scribes were complaining to his disciples, saying, ‘Why do you eat and drink with tax-collectors and sinners?’ Luke 5.30
Robert Redford appears on both sides of the camera in his little-heralded The Company You Keep, adapted by Lem Dobbs from the novel by Neil Gordon. The story harks back to the chaotic days of the 1960 and 70s when the anti-Vietnam War resisters split over whether or not to use violence to oppose the war. Although it might seem ironic now that those opposed to mass violence overseas should resort to violence in this country, it was a debate that raged among black civil rights activists as well as among those against the war. Throughout the film we see a surveillance camera video of a bank robbery scene in which a guard was shot and killed. The robbers were members of the Weather Underground (shortened to Weathermen). From 1969 through the mid 1970s they bombed various government buildings as well as robbing banks for funds.
Redford has gathered quite an array of stars for his cast of characters, who are on both sides of the law— Shia LaBeouf, Susan Sarandon, Nick Nolte, Stanley Tucci, Julie Christie, Chris Cooper, Terrence Howard, Richard Jenkins, Anna Kendrick, Brendan Gleeson, Brit Marlin, Sam Elliot. They all contribute greatly to make this more than just a man hunt film, with the director’s character Jim Grant/Nick Sloan raising questions of conscience, the choice between violence and nonviolence, and the danger of an ambitious career choice.
The film begins with the arrest of Vermont housewife Sharon Solarz (Sarandon), who, according to her statement was about to turn herself in. She is charged with being part of the Weathermen gang of bank robbers over 30 years ago. Albany reporter Ben Shepard (LaBeouf), so youthful looking that everyone calls him “Kid,” is chastisemed by his editor Ray Fuller (Stanley Tucci) for missing such a story in their own area. Ben sets forth to follow up on the story and becomes suspicious when he contacts local lawyer Jim Grant (Redford), who has connections to Sharon, and the man keeps avoiding him. He wonders why Grant has turned down the request to defend her, this being such a high profile case that most lawyers would leap at the opportunity. In some tender domestic scenes we learn that Jim is now a single parent raising daughter Isabel (Jackie Evancho) following the recent death of his wife in an auto accident.
Ben contacts Diana (Anna Kendrick), a college friend now working for the FBI, and discovers that there is no record of lawyer Jim Grant before 1979. Further sleuthing reveals that Jim is actually Nick Sloan, an anti-war activist whose friends had joined the Weathermen. Thus the title of the film and the question: does such association mean that one is guilty also of the crimes they commit? (This “guilt by association” was a big theme in the McCarthy era, as well as in the 60s, Communism being seen as a horrid disease easily spread on contact Ray’s story forces Jim Grant/Nick Sloan to flee with his daughter in the middle of the night after he contacts Daniel Sloan (Chris Cooper), the younger brother he has not seen for many years, to arrange for the transfer of Isabel into his custody in Manhattan. By now the FBI team led by Agent Cornelius (Terrence Howard) is tapping into his phone, so he barely escapes from the agents sent to the hotel lobby rendezvous by using his wits.
Nick sets off, with the help of various old colleagues he has not seen since the 70s, for Michigan in the hope of finding some way to contact Mimi Lauri (Julie Christie), one of the leaders of the gang who could clear him of the charge, as he was not with them during the robbery. Indeed, eventually we will learn that he was opposed in principle to his friends’ resorting to violence. Now sensing a big scoop, Ray persuades his reluctant editor to let him pursue the fugitive to Michigan, where the fatal bank robbery had taken place. How this plays out, with two parties in hot pursuit of Grant—reporter Ben and FBI agents led by Cornelius—makes for some suspenseful moments. We wonder if Mimi, now living comfortably in Big Sur with her lover Mack McLeod (Sam Elliott), will even show up at the secluded cabin on an island just south of Canada. Once lovers themselves, they split over the issue of violence—and clearing Jim/Nick would mean that she would have to turn herself in and stand trial.
Ray has managed to talk with the former Ann Arbor police chief Henry Osborne (Brendan Gleeson) about the long ago bank robbery, and even the policeman’s daughter Rebecca, thereby turning up a dark mystery in that man’s past. Eventually catching up with his quary, the reporter finds himself faced with a question of morality when Jim/Nick warns him about his naked ambition and its possible consequences. It is sad that this film has not received more attention, making it imperative that you act quickly if you want to see this on a big screen. Thus far it is among the best of the year.
Spoilers at the end!
1. How is the Weather Underground a good example of legitimate protest gone bad?
(If you need more information, see the long Wikipdia article about the group at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Weather_Underground 2. How are their violent tactics another example of people using “the end justifies the means” rationale to bring about social justice?
3. How do we see judging persons by “the company you keep” potentially harmful? How was Jesus judged by those who opposed him? How do parents also worry about this (and often rightly so) also?
4. At what points do you see, as Jim/Nick encounters colleagues from the past, grace?
5. What is the basis for Jim/Nick’s appeal to Mimi? Does the film hold an optimistic or pessimistic view of human nature?
6. Thus far we have concentrated on Jim/Nick: what is Ben like? What motivates him the most? What danger for his well-being does Jim/Nick see in him? What decision does he obviously make? How does this make him a stronger and more appealing person?