Monday, May 6, 2013

Robert Redford, the Weather Underground, and why we read books

Robert Redford's latest, The Company You Keep, isn't a bad movie as thoughtful thrillers go.

The film is a roman à clef about 60's and 70's radicals shedding long-standing, carefully guarded, underground identities to emerge (some unwillingly) into the harsh light of the late twentieth century. The characters are fictionalizations; their political origins in The Weather Underground are historical; and the brutal, fictionalized murder that vaults the film's Weather-alum protagonists onto the FBI's most wanted list is as brutal as the triple-murder committed by real-life alums of Weather in the course of an infamous 1981 Brinks robbery.

I kept an eye on the movie's development for several years, eager to see Redford's film version of a book I often use as a comp title when pitching my own novel, Consequence. So I saw the movie the weekend it opened in my neighborhood. The Company You Keep is still playing at the Albany Twin several weeks later, though the numbers at boxoffice.com suggest the project has had its big-screen ride, and it wasn't exactly a blockbuster.

Doing his apparent-best to troll the film, Christian Toto of Breitbart.com wrote about a week ago, in a post titled 'The Company You Keep" Bombs in Wider Release:
Robert Redford assembled a glittery cast for his latest directorial effort, The Company You Keep. The acclaimed star/producer also garnered his fair share of softball interviews with the likes of ABC's George Stephanopoulos.

That wasn't enough to prevent the film from tanking at the box office. Could it have anything to do with the subject matter?
I don't think the film's performance at the box office had much to do with the subject matter, if anything. It had to do much more with, first, the fact that a complex and nuanced story, written as the novel on which the movie was based (Neil Gordon's eponymous The Company You Keep) was flattened in order to fit a fairly standard thriller format. Stephen Holden of the NY Times put it less mercifully:
A seam of melancholy runs through “The Company You Keep,” Robert Redford’s reflective melodrama about political idealism run amok and the wages of youthful folly. For audiences over 50, in particular, this fictional story of homegrown terrorists sprung from the 1960s counterculture should conjure complicated feelings of pride, shame, anger and regret.

But along with those emotions, this earnest, well-intentioned movie elicits frustration that its story had to be packaged as a conventional, not very suspenseful fugitive thriller with a bogus Hollywood ending.
Then there's the fact that Robert Redford, age seventy-six on the date of this post -- bless the man's stamina -- played a part conceived for a forty-something fitness nut, leaching the film of its thriller edge.

I saw the movie with three others. All of us have worked and/or do work as political activists. Half of us had been politically engaged during the active period of SDS and Weather. The other half had read Gordon's novel. I was one of the latter; in fact, I'd already read the novel twice (then, after watching the movie, I read it again).

All three of my fellow moviegoers came out of the Albany Twin saying that -- as fictionalizations go -- they liked Redford's take on the story.

Me?

I couldn't get past my disappointment at how much of what really mattered about the novel was pared away to fit a fraction of its plot into a two hour film.

Gordon's novel tackles what Breitbart's Troll Toto dismissed as "the subject matter" head on: why anybody -- and especially anybody who wasn't there, who didn't have skin in the social and political convulsions that marked the era of the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement -- should or would look at The Weather Underground sympathetically twenty-five or thirty years later.

The novel is set in 2006 and tells a story set ten years earlier. In the book's 1996, protagonist Jim Grant is 'outed' as fugitive radical Jason Sinai, who has been living a false identity -- as a public interest lawyer -- for the last couple of decades, in upstate New York. Gordon constructs the story as a series of extended e-mails sent by participants on multiple sides of the splintering antiwar movement of the 1970's.

Of course there are fictionalized members of Weather. There's a fictionalized FBI agent, who infiltrated the group's ranks on the campus of UM Ann Arbor shortly after returning from his own tour of duty in Vietnam. The FBI agent's daughter is a conservative student at Ann Arbor in 1996; her honors-thesis advisor is a professor who was himself in Weather with Jason Sinai. The audience for all these e-mailed angles about what happened during Weather's active period and over the years the protagonists spent underground is Grant's/Sinai's daughter Isabel. Sinai's daughter, of course, was born to a father living as someone he wasn't. In the novel -- which opens memorably with the line "All parents are bad parents" -- she is abandoned by that father as he sets out, with the FBI in full pursuit, to take his best shot at setting the historical record straight and saving Isabel from the girl's absentee, drug-addicted mother.

The immediate goal of the e-mails, and the excuse for recounting -- to a generation for whom the 70's are ancient pre-history -- how and why Weather came to be, is part of a complex gambit to raise political support from actors in the highest levels of government, aimed at influencing a parole hearing for one of the novel's protagonists (this framing element of the novel's storyline was pretty much M.I.A. from the film).

A skeptical young journalist with serious reservations about self-justifying leftists (and a serious anti-authoritarian streak of his own) is Jason Sinai's principal foil. There's a fair bit of wrangling between these two and others over bias that is or isn't inflecting the story being told to Isabel ... just like politics then and now. Historical background is tightly interwoven with accounts of fugitives on the run in 1996, of cops and journalists in hot pursuit, and of a burgeoning love story between the skeptical journalist and the conservative daughter of that fictionalized FBI agent.

The accounts of their pasts given by Gordon's characters are coherent, self-critical, multivalent, and firmly grounded in the social and political agony in which the events they relate occurred. In other words, they are human.

As for the film?

(I'm going to let a few spoilers out of the bag, so if you're going to read the book skip the next several paragraphs.)

Neil Gordon's Jason Sinai loses his red-diaper-baby background (and is rechristened Nick Sloan), lopping off a crucial set of the protagonist's historical roots in the American left.

The film pushes Jason's father-in-law into the deep background. In the novel, he's a powerful ex-Senator who learned the true identity of his daughter's beloved early in their relationship, but covered it up in order not to lose her to a fugitive life. The ex-Senator's string-pulling is the precipitating factor that manipulates the journalist character to expose Sinai in an effort to regain custody of his granddaughter.

Most importantly, the depth and nuance of lived history -- political, social, and psychological -- brought to life in the novel's multiply-narrated tale-telling is all but fully bleached out of the movie in order to make way for ... well, for pretty much the same false alarms, close calls, and chases you saw in the last several dozen thrillers that crossed your eyeballs.

And ... sorry, Mr. Redford ... a final flight through the thick woods of Michigan's Upper Peninsula -- rife with tension in the novel -- hovered between implausibility and anxiety that the septuagenarian star might have an unscripted heart attack before the chase was over.

It's not that I have anything against Hollywood thrillers.

It's just that there were fully-realized characters in Gordon's novel, and serious grappling with history, and passion, and compromise, and some pretty compelling reflections-in-hindsight. In the film these dimensions are reduced to single lines, fleeting scenes, and oblique references as the plot runs roughshod over character, motive, nuance, and backstory. Where a viewer doesn't fill in her own historical depth, the film barely ventures further than the shallow end of the pool. Yes, Redford's effort amounts to a credible thriller with some political gloss ... but it's not a tenth as engaging or as illuminating as the novel on which it was based.

The film is good fun, and viewers of a certain age (who can and will fill in their own background) might find in it a certain nostalgic value.

But do yourself a favor: read Neil Gordon's novel if you're looking for something more than an excuse to while away a couple of hours watching a better-than-average film.


Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Mayan apocalypse spoofs were funny, but Weather Underground was right
The controversy machine v the reality machine
Book first or movie first?



Thanks to Steve Terrell for the image of Redford with Gov. Bill Richardson, via Flickr by way of Wikimedia Commons.

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