Remember “Hell no, we won’t go!” and “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?” Remember the marches and the draft card burnings and the fiery speeches on the university steps?
Scenes from that American war period are still mesmerizing and laden with emotion for those who lived through it. It was more than 40 years ago that we were in Viet Nam, and we didn’t want to be there. So we came home. Some of us. And the protesters at home went into hiding.
In a new film, The Company You Keep, the turmoil of the period is captured in the blotchy, herky-jerky footage taken at the time. It still packs a wallop. But then the film becomes a gentle vindication of those activities and careens off to the lives of a group of former protesters living in their own manufactured after-life as pillars of their communities.
The war being waged currently in Afghanistan, on the other hand, seems to be taking place in some parallel universe. Nobody seems to be paying much attention. Maybe because the men and women fighting this war were not drafted. They chose to enlist, to fight and die, for a war that seems to be reflected at home only in the mounting price of gas. And the mounting number of casualties.
The Company You Keep is set 30 years after the Viet Nam days, as Susan Sarandon, after living quietly as a suburban housewife, decides to acknowledge her former involvement in an antiwar protest in which a guard was killed. Which sets in motion a renewed search for the other members of the group. One of whom is Robert Redford.
Redford, a successful lawyer living in the Albany suburbs with his young daughter, is forced into a cross-country journey to find the old activist friends who can clear his name. He hasn’t heard from them in decades, but he readily finds them, changed names and identities notwithstanding. And everywhere he goes he is followed by a cocky young reporter, Shia LaBeouf, who first outed him and is determined to make a name for himself with this story.
Aside from the ease with which Redford finds his Weather Underground co-conspirators, the other hard-to-swallow factor is that this still handsome, but obviously aging, actor is the loving and patient father of an 11-year-old daughter, played by Jackie Evancho. It would be infinitely more credible if widower Redford were caring for a granddaughter due to the death of his daughter rather than a daughter due to the death of his wife.
Be that as it may, Redford directs an all-star cast in a story that is fictional but “a piece of American history. It truly gets inside how people were living their lives 30 years later…underground and with a false identity,” he says.
His cast includes, in addition to Sarandon and LaBeouf, Julie Christie, Nick Nolte, Chris Cooper, Terrence Howard, Stanley Tucci, and Sam Elliott, among others, and we meet them as he travels across the country searching them out.
It’s a gripping, if not entirely convincing tale, but certainly worth seeing—especially if you didn’t actually live through it in the ‘60s and ‘70s.
The Company You Keep opened in New York and Los Angeles on April 5th.
Photos, clockwise: Julie Christie, Robert Redford, Shia LaBeouf, Susan Sarandon