The Company You Keep

Sheltered in my rabbit hole of constant reading, writing, work, planning, socializing, etc., breaking out of my U. Va. bubble feels abrupt and jarring, startling me into the realization that, in fact, an enormous world shifts kaleidoscopically around me at all times. Seeing elderly people, babies – really anyone who isn’t between the ages of 18 and 23 – still surprises me sometimes. The fact that I could ever forget that, even just for a second, is disturbing to me.

When my former apartment-mate/very good friend Wishy suggested that we see a movie tonight at the $1.50 theater on Route 29, I checked the listings and was dismayed to realize that I didn’t recognize a single film on the list, despite the fact that they weren’t new releases. I watched a few trailers and was thrilled to see Robert Redford in The Company You Keep. I’ve seen pretty much every film he’s starred in, including his first television appearance on The Twilight Zone when he was so young that you can see the acne beneath his pancake makeup during close up shots. The Sting was the film that got me into other classic films, and All the President’s Men made me want to pursue journalism as the outlet for my writing. Redford’s work has guided my interests through the years.

From all of that background, it’s pretty obvious that I was inclined to like The Company You Keep despite the fact that I knew nothing about it. I tried to put that positive bias aside as I watched; here are some reasons I thought The Company You Keep was a smart movie packed with refreshing political messages:

  1. The Weathermen are explicitly defined as an American terrorist organization. As U.S. involvement in the Middle East drags on, it’s been easy for the media to frame all terrorism as foreign terrorism and, by extension, all terrorism as a threat emanating from Middle Eastern people. 9/11 generated justifiable sadness and fear, but it also generated racism, intolerance of non-Western religious beliefs, and distrust and resentment of anyone of Arabic descent. After the recent bombing at the Boston Marathon, the media connected the alleged bombers to an extremist faction of Islam within days, despite the fact that the two men were from an area of Russia plagued by domestic terrorism for decades. I was in elementary school when 9/11 occurred, and I can’t say that I’d seen a film specifically about acts of terrorism committed by  Americans, against Americans, before The Company You Keep. Although events of domestic terrorism have popped up in headlines recently – the Newtown shooting, to name one – Hollywood isn’t quick to put these themes in theaters. It’s easier to view threats to domestic peace as coming from without rather than within, hence the success of alien movies, apocalypse movies, superhero movies, and war movies in recent years.
  2. The Company You Keep resensitized me to Vietnam. My favorite class at U. Va. last semester explored contemporary literary representations of the Holocaust. We discussed emotional sensitivity to the Holocaust extensively – but above all, we talked about the way we’ve become desensitized to the Holocaust. To begin with, the sheer scale of tragedy and cruelty during the Holocaust is unfathomable. With that enormous obstacle in place, contemporary writers face the fact that readers “already know the story.” Most people know the basics – the trains, the gas chambers, the random shootings, the striped uniforms. These details become the basic arsenal of tropes, losing their ability to shock, to make readers viscerally feel the tragedy they are describing. To combat this desensitized audience, contemporary writers use a variety of techniques to awaken readers to the horror and grief examination of the Holocaust should inspire, including poetic language that requires re-reading and analysis; postmodern techniques that fracture the narrative, mirroring the destruction of continuity during the Holocaust; magical realism that reflects the way normal rules governing conventional life were disregarded; and more. During a brief but powerful speech, Sharon Solarz (Susan Sarandon) describes the violence and uncertainty of the Vietnam era. Eyes wide and faintly crazed, Solarz’s account of the Vietnam era reveals that her world view remains shaped by memories of being beaten by police during peaceful protests, watching fellow college students shot at Kent State, and the constant dread of the draft. American Studies majors often discuss the fact that public schools serve as the state’s primary opportunity to indoctrinate national values into young Americans; it seems convenient that we always ran out of time to learn about any history beyond World War II. Summer came, school was out, and the chapters on the Vietnam era remained unexamined, locked in our history books. At most, we learned about Watergate, but the darker stories were utterly sanitized.
  3. The Company You Keep offered an examination of news media begging to be put into conversation with All the President’s MenAs every college student should, I took a film class last fall. (If you go to U. Va., you should definitely try to take a class with Joe Arton before you graduate.) One idea that continues to fascinate me is the concept of excess – connections between films that exist outside of the world contained within the film. In this case, Robert Redford’s presence in a film that offered pointed commentary on the state of contemporary news media instantly triggered most audience members’ memory of Redford’s starring role in All the President’s Men, the ultimate classic among journalism movies and legends in general. I saw All the President’s Men at a lovely old theater downtown at the Virginia Film Festival last fall, followed by a Q&A with Woodward and Bernstein. I had always considered it to be a serious picture, so I was surprised to hear the audience laugh throughout the screening. Most audience members were old enough to recall the Watergate story breaking, and it dawned on me that the comic relief stemmed from experiential understanding of the period. Either way, it’s undeniable that Redford’s portrayal of Woodward is heroic. Redford’s Woodward is often humbled, stoic, honest, and in dogged pursuit of the truth. By contrast, in The Company You Keep, Redford plays a tired former-radical, while Shia LeBeouf portrays an arrogant, self-serving journalist eager to catapult his career away from the dying local paper he views with little sympathy. Ben Shepard (LeBeouf) is completely entitled, worming his way into people’s homes and even begging a source for a date. He somewhat redeems himself by choosing not to publish a story exposing the personal lives of other characters, losing his job in the process, but even this act couldn’t save his overall characterization as a basically sleazy guy who is ignorant of the history of golden-age, Woodward and Bernstein-era journalism that came before him. For example, Shepard doesn’t blink when multiple sources ask to be off the record, an arrangement used extensively by Woodward and Bernstein despite the fact that it threatened to compromise the Washington Post‘s legitimacy. The Company You Keep is critical of contemporary journalism.
  4. Adoption is portrayed in a way that reflects me. The Company You Keep features a character named Rebecca Osbourne (played by Brit Marling) who was adopted by a police officer after two radicals chose to pursue their cause without the limitations of caring for a child. Despite Shepard’s off-hand remark that Rebecca didn’t look like her parents, I thought that she basically resembled them – essentially, she was white and American. All too often, adoption is portrayed as a strictly international interaction. Even worse, discussion of adoption as an option for unplanned or unwanted pregnancy is completely absent from the pro-life/pro-choice debate, which focuses on abortion. Adoption laws are different in every state, making it difficult to orchestrate. International adoptions obviously have the same positive effect of placing children with uncertain futures into loving homes. However, there are many unwanted, unplanned children born within the United States as well. The Company You Keep also offered a glimpse at something I think all adopted children long to hear – Rebecca’s biological parents reunite for a single night together, during which they agree that they would have liked to have raised her themselves. Rebecca’s biological mother even admits to an act of voyeuristic observation; she couldn’t resist glimpsing her daughter, and she approved of the daughter she found.
  5. The film examines three different generations. Assuming that the story is set in 2012, the year it was released, Redford’s character’s eleven-year-old daughter would have been born just as 9/11 occurred. This separated the film’s characters into three generations: the aging Weathermen, who experienced the Vietnam era; Shepard and Rebecca, who witnessed 9/11 during their early high school years; and the newest generation, born into a post-9/11 world. This stratification into three distinct generations shaped by major historic events merits an entire analysis on its own, and I’d probably need to see the film again to do this justice. Not coincidentally, one of the former Weathermen is a university professor of – what else? – history. Cleverly inset within the film is a short scene of his lecture, in which he describes history as something made by human beings and human passions, delivering the film’s overall vision of history.
  6. There’s a Vonnegut allusion. And it happens to be my favorite line out of all the literature I’ve read: “So it goes.” Taken from Slaughterhouse-Five, one of Vonnegut’s many anti-war texts, this allusion contributed to the film’s commentary on the complicated relationship between violence and non-violence, action and inaction. As Solarz says, inaction during a time of government treachery seemed like an act of violence at the time of the Weathermen’s greatest activism.

Rotten Tomatoes reviewers found the film to be too slow and too boring, but I enjoyed its multifaceted, fully developed storyline and cast of characters. It’s rare that I see a recently-made film that leaves me satisfied, let alone in theaters. I found a lot to analyze in The Company You Keep, and I know I’ve seen a good film when it stays on my mind after the credits finish rolling.

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