Robert Redford’s “The Company You Keep” and Homegrown Terrorism

Two weeks ago, as a result of the horrific Boston Bombing, three people were killed, and over 200 innocent bystanders were seriously injured. Some of whom had their legs blown off. Others were so injured that they will have to undergo multiple surgeries.

In the wake of this tragedy, Robert Redford and his Hollywood production company have produced and recently provocatively, mass released his film, The Company You Keep that appears to be sympathetic to homegrown American terrorism and homegrown terrorists.

Before analyzing Redford’s political message or messages in The Company You Keep, a little historical background is in order.

In the late 1960s and 1970s The Weather Underground Organization (a.k.a. The Weathermen) was a militant wing of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS).

The SDS, based in many American colleges and universities throughout the U.S., was formed to primarily protest the then American involvement in the Vietnam War. Its modes of protests were sit-ins, peaceful demonstrations in Washington and on campuses, the occupation of some university administration offices and minor civil disobedience.

The more militant Weathermen, (some of whom were former SDS leaders), preferred more violent means of protest.

They believed that the SDS mode of civil disobedience and protest was insufficient and inadequate. And had failed to sufficiently influence American popular opinion and the then American government about the horrors of America’s involvement in the Vietnam War and in other American foreign adventures.

The Weathermen, wanted to “bring the war home” back to America. Accordingly, The Weathermen targeted American government buildings which represented America’s war effort, and bombed them and tried to blow them up.

The Weathermen publicly claimed that they did not want to hurt any Americans so they gave advance notice of their targets so as to encourage the building’s occupants to exit prior to the buildings being bombed.

The Weathermen also engaged in armed robberies. And tragically, during one armed robbery of a Brinks’ truck, three Brinks’ security guards were killed. Two of the killers were Weathermen lovers, who had just dropped off their one year child at the baby sitter, before the armed robbery.

Wow! Shades of the film, The Company You Keep. But much more honest, true and brutal.

On another occasion, three Weathermen, while preparing bombs in a New York Greenwich Village townhouse, accidentally blew themselves up. The bombs that they were preparing contained nails, not too dissimilar to the type of nail bombs prepared and recently exploded by the Boston bombers a few weeks ago. At the time, investigators believed that these bombs were intended to be exploded at an upcoming officers’ dance, nearby at Fort Dix, New Jersey, in which there would have been significant loss of life and serious injury. This speculation was confirmed in the unpublished memoirs of Mark Rudd, a Weatherman leader, in 2005.

Harvey Klehr, the Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Politics and History at Emory University in Atlanta said, “The only reason that they (the Weathermen) were not guilty of mass murder is mere incompetence. I don’t know what sort of defence that is.”

Apparently, the Weathermen organized into underground cells. They amassed weapons and explosives and learned how to use them. One of their goals was to engage in guerrilla warfare against the American government. This appears like al Qaeda, American style, at least 30 years before al Qaeda hit the States.

Robert Redford is the producer, director and star of this film.

This is his film. Redford, 76, plays a 60-ish single dad to a 11-year-old daughter. He is a public interest lawyer and a former Weatherman, who has been hiding from the authorities, under a different identity, for 30 years. Because he was accused of being one of the Weathermen who was involved with the murder of the one bank security guard, during a bank robbery by the Weathermen.

One of the driving forces of this film is Redford’s character’s efforts to reconnect with his former Weathermen, in order to clear his name.

Robert Redford has always been a serious actor and filmmaker and very socially and politically conscious.
To his credit he has produced, directed and starred in an intelligent and thought-provoking film that is very political.

But having thrown down the gauntlet, what is Redford’s political message?

What does he mean to say about homegrown terrorists and homegrown terrorism? Especially in light of 9/11 and the recent Boston Bombing?

This is not merely an entertaining flick about events in the 1960s and 70s. This is a political film that is using the anti-Vietnam war protests and the Weathermen to comment upon American political life today. And current American domestic and foreign policies.

Julie Christie (Mimi), plays a former Weatherman, and former lover of Redford (Jim/Nick) with whom they had a child, but who was given up for adoption, as they went underground. Near the end of the film, Christie opines to Redford to the effect, that what has gone on in the past (the American government killing millions of people in Vietnam and in other countries) is still going on today.

I am not sure what Redford’s own personal views are, but here are some of the political messages conveyed by his film characters, the former Weathermen, in this film.

In police custody, Susan Sarandon (Sharon) one of the bank robbers, party to the murder of the security guard, talked about how back how then, in the ’60s and ’70s, the American government committed genocide in Vietnam. She referred to the infamous My Lai massacre in Vietnam.

She also mentioned that the American government killed Americans in the United States. She cited how Ohio National Guards killed students at Kent State and city and state police killed students at Jackson State. And that America then forced its young men to go to war in Vietnam against their will pursuant to a compulsory draft.

When Shia LaBeouf, (Ben) the reporter, confronted Sarandon, about the murder of the one security guard in the bank, she admitted that “mistakes” were made.

But when LaBeouf asked Sarandon, would she do it again, presumably today, under similar circumstances, she confessed she would do the same thing, providing her children or her parents would not be affected. In other words, she had no remorse for killing that one bank security guard.

Similarly, when Redford confronted Julie Christie, another former Weatherman, Christie launched into a political diatribe against the American government then and now killing millions of people, implying that America’s recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are no different than when the U.S. was fighting in the Vietnam War. She also accused the American government now of destroying the environment (an issue close to Redford’s character’s heart).

When Redford confronted Christie about the killing of the bank security guard and the fact that the guard was a father, Christie justified that murder by stating that America was killing thousands of fathers in foreign lands.
Christie also had no remorse for killing that one bank security guard.

The Redford character seemed to have some remorse for the death of the bank security guard. But he did not out right condemn the death or condemn the Weathermen movement. He explained his leaving the Weathermen because he outgrew it.

I am assuming he outgrew his youthful idealism.

As an artist, Redford has the right to mould the historical record to fit his narrative or political point of view.

Redford’s film omits the fact that three Brinks’ security guards were killed as opposed to one bank security guard. And they were killed by Weathermen lovers with a one year old child. And Redford’s glaring omission of the fact that three Weathermen had blown themselves up preparing bombs that may have actually injured or killed American military.

Also Redford glosses over and omits the fact that the Weathermen were a violent radical American group that amassed weapons and explosives with the intent of not only blowing up buildings, but killing and maiming innocent Americans.

Redford’s sanitizing of the Weathermen and all these obvious and glaring omissions, are very troubling to me.

These omissions suggest to me that Redford wanted to whitewash the Weathermen. To better serve the film’s narrative. The film’s point of view.

Through the two most forceful Weathermen characters in the film, Sarandon and Christie, Redford focuses the film on the terrible deeds the American government did in Vietnam and in other wars. Not the morality or criminality of the violent terrorist actions of the Weathermen.

According to the Sarandon and Christie characters, the actions of the Weathermen were a justified response to the militaristic actions of the American government in Vietnam and in other foreign countries and to the American Government’s violent actions against its own people in the U.S.

In other words, the root causes of domestic terrorism in the U.S. are America’s militaristic foreign policies and its aggressive policies on its own people.

And the Sarandon and Christie characters have no remorse for the killing of the bank security guard.

The only alternate view in the film was expressed very succinctly by a minor character, Anna Kendrick, (Diana), a young FBI field officer, who witnessed the Sarandon interview in prison. Her comment to her friend LaBeouf, the reporter, was that he was hypnotized by Sarandon. She implied that Sarandon was not an idealistic freedom fighter, but a terrorist. Kendrick argued, “Terrorists justify terrorism.”

I share this view.

What troubles me about the film, The Company You Keep, is that this film seems to identify more with and be more sympathetic with the views of the homegrown terrorists, the Sarandon and Christie characters.

Which is particularly disturbing in light of the recent Boston Bombing.

I think Robert Redford has some serious explaining to do.

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