"Thank you for listening."
In the opening moments of Robert Redford's wonderful new film The Company You Keep, a middle aged woman pulls into a rural New York gas station, where she is immediately encircled by police cars and arrested by the FBI. Although she looks like an ordinary suburban matron, it turns out that this seemingly respectable person is actually "Sharon Solarz," a member of the Weather Underground who has succeeded in living below the radar for almost 30 years.
Frazzled editor "Ray Fuller" (Stanley Tucci) assigns the story to "Ben Shepard" (Shia LaBeouf), an ambitious young reporter with minimal knowledge of the Sixties and no sympathy for Solarz whatsoever. But something in the first article Ben writes sparks Sharon's interest, and she asks to see him. Hoping she will reveal useful information during the interview, the FBI agrees. And that's how we come to see Susan Sarandon, pale and drawn under harsh lights in an ugly orange jumpsuit, deliver one of the greatest performances of her distinguished career.
Calm and composed even while shackled to a table, Sharon speaks forcefully, and Ben finds the intensity of her commitment deeply moving. "Thank you for speaking with me," says Ben with genuine emotion when their time is up. "Thank you for listening," Sharon replies, and her presence resonates throughout the entire film, even though Ben never sees her again and neither do we.
Director Robert Redford has cast himself as attorney "Jim Grant" who is actually "Nick Sloan," another Weather Underground fugitive caught up in the mayhem unleashed by Sharon's arrest. The actual plot of The Company You Keep revolves around Ben's attempt to located Jim/Nick, as he goes on the run seeking aid and comfort from numerous compatriots all played in short sharp scenes by venerable Baby Boomers like Julie Christie, Richard Jenkins, and Nick Nolte. But what really follows is a two hour battle for the soul of Ben Shepard, who tracks Jim/Nick in good faith, as a reporter, without realizing that the FBI now has him under surveillance too.
Chicago, of course, occupies a special place in the mythology of the Sixties, beginning with the Democratic Convention in 1968 (and the subsequent trial of "The Chicago Seven"), and continuing right up through the 2008 Presidential campaign (when Barack Obama's relationship with his Hyde Park neighbor Bill Ayers, who was one of the founders of the Weather Underground, became a subject of intense interest on Fox News).
Redford is no fool, so I am sure he took this project on expecting negative blowback, nevertheless, The Company You Keep is a profoundly optimistic film. The film I saw was not about the past, it was about the future. Much like "you are what you eat," the phrase "the company you keep" is presented as a moral challenge, and by the end Ben Shepard has made his choice.
The Company You Keep opens in Metro Chicago today at the Landmark Century in Lincoln Park and the CineArts in Evanston.
Photo Credits: Doane Gregory/Sony Pictures Classics
ADDENDUM: FROM PAGE TO SCREEN
As is my way, I saw The Company You Keep at a preview screening, then I read the novel, then I saw the film a second time before writing this review. (I try to do this every time I want to write a serious review of a literary adaptation.)
Conventional Wisdom says "the movie is never as good as the book," but this is one case where CW is simply wrong. Neil Gordon's novel is OK (too many characters, too many coincidences, too much melodrama), but Robert Redford's film is very powerful. Working closely with screenwriter Lem Dobbs, Redford has extracted the best elements of Gordon's novel, and added some essential connective tissue. In Redford's hands, a story about the past becomes a catalyst for the future.
All of which is fine with me, except for one thing: where are the Jews?
Ironically, all of the names novelist Neil Gordon gave to his huge cast of characters (Jed Lewis, Mimi Lurie, Henry Osborne, Sharon Solarz, etc) have all stayed the same except for three: reporter Ben Shepard (known in the novel as Ben Schulberg), and the Sloan Brothers (known in the film as Nick Sloan and Daniel Sloan, but known in the novel as Jason Sinai and Daniel Sinai). So on the page, both of the protagonists-Ben Schulberg and Jim Grant/Jason Sinai-are clearly Jewish, but you would never know that if you had only met their onscreen counterparts.
And you know they are Jewish not only from their names, and from their face-to-face conversations, but also from their backstories, especially the Jim Grant/Jason Sinai backstory. In Gordon's novel, Jason Sinai is the son of a prominent Jewish labor lawyer, and when he goes on the run, the first place he heads is Lower Manhattan. He opens a hidden safe in his father's office, and finds not only cash (which he expects), but also updated IDs with photographs of his brother's aging face replacing his own (which he does not expect but clearly finds extremely useful). In other words, the Sinai family has neither seen nor heard from Jason for thirty years, but they have always prepared for a time when he might suddenly reach out to them in a crisis. And when that day finally comes, he has their full support.
Several years ago, when I interviewed screenwriter Aline Brosh McKenna (a good Jewish girl from New Jersey) about her adaptation of The Devil Wears Prada, I asked her why the two main characters, Andy and Miranda, identified as Jewish in Lauren Weisberger's novel, were no longer Jewish onscreen. She said: "We were trying to streamline the book and we had a lot of stuff to deal with, with both Andy and Miranda, and it didn't seem like that was a part of it."
I can accept that explanation for The Devil Wears Prada, but I don't think it's appropriate in the case of The Company You Keep. Most of the leaders of the Weather Underground and its parent organization SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) were Jewish. So I agree with activist Mark Rudd when he says: "I do believe that the revolt of Jewish youth in the New Left of the sixties and seventies deserves to be studied and honored as an important chapter in the history of American Jews."
According to Rudd: "…two-thirds of the white Freedom Riders who traveled to Mississippi were Jewish; a majority of the steering committee of the 1964 Berkeley Free Speech Movement were Jewish; the SDS chapters at Columbia and the University of Michigan were more than half Jewish; at Kent State in Ohio, where only 5 percent of the student body was Jewish, three of the four students shot by the National Guard in May, 1970 were Jewish… This was only twenty years after the end of World War II, and World War II and the Holocaust were our fixed reference points. We often talked about the moral imperative to not be Good Germans."
Please note that this is definitely an asymmetrical relationship: most Jewish students were not radical activists; nevertheless, most radical activists were Jewish. If that fact is an indisputable part of the history of the Sixties, why leave it out?
Maybe transforming himself from someone named "Jason Sinai" into someone named "Nick Sloan" is OK for Redford. After all, when we see him on screen, many of us will always see him in our mind's eye as "Hubbell Gardner" in The Way We Were. But I wish Redford had kept the name "Ben Schulberg" for his foil instead of making him "Ben Shepard." Shia LaBeouf is one of the most promising young Jewish actors on today's scene, so all of this is part of the "baggage" that the real Shia LaBeouf now carries with him. My hope is that he has more chances to explore this legacy-on our behalf-in the future.
"Thank you for listening."