Robert Redford revisits the imaginary 1960s and finds the present wanting

April 5, 2013

At Berkeley back in the day, the best description I heard of a radical was someone willing to give your all for his cause.

That line came to mind today while reading the New York Times review of Robert Redford’s new film The Company You Keep, about some former Weather Underground-type radicals whose past catches up with them.  For four decades they’d been on the lam, unwilling to take responsibility for the murderous act they committed.  Which is to say that they didn’t have the courage of their convictions.

This distinguishes them in every conceivable way from Martin Luther King’s civil disobedience movement.  Not only did King insist on nonviolence to achieve racial equality, but the movement’s success actually required protesters to publicly pay the price for violating immoral laws, thus shaming the citizenry.

The focal character, Jim Grant (Mr. Redford), is a recently widowed public interest lawyer and solid citizen raising an 11-year-old daughter in a suburb of Albany. Jim, the movie’s moral fulcrum, is forced to confront the past when Sharon Solarz (Ms. Sarandon) turns herself in to the F.B.I. for violence committed years earlier. Ms. Sarandon, whose Bette Davis eyes still burn, gives the film’s fiercest performance as a woman inflamed by a sense of injustice. She says she would do it all again “if I didn’t have kids and old parents that I love.”

The lack of irony in that quote is poetically splendid.  That the man she killed also had kids and parents he loved and who loved him isn’t a concern.  To her, he was just collateral damage in the war she chose to fight, as important as a bug splattered on her windshield.  She gladly gave his all for her cause.

The unintentional solipsism of Sarandon’s character–and, no doubt, of Redford’s, too–perfectly distills the ‘60s antiwar movement, which would not have existed if it weren’t for the draft.  How do we know that?  Because American troops came home from Vietnam in January 1973.  The war, meanwhile, didn’t end (after Congress broke a pledge to South Vietnam and withdrew funding) until April 1975.  In those 27 months there wasn’t a single antiwar protest.

Boomers remember the ‘60s with a wistful fondness for a number of reasons.  The world seemed safe and open.  Parents imposed few restrictions.  The music was great.  And the zeitgeist seemed to sanction a years-long teen tantrum disguised as selfless idealism.

But no one of a certain age today should confuse the unambiguous moral good of the Civil Rights movement with anything else that happened after someone somewhere was “inflamed by a sense of injustice.”

UPDATE/P.S./SECOND THOUGHT: Robert Redford is 75.  According to the plot synopsis, his daughter in the movie is 11, so his character was 64 when the girl was born.  Being generous, let’s say that the girl’s mother, who died “a few years ago,” gave birth at 40.  That’s a difference of (at least) 24 years between mother and father, leading to a reasonable inference that his 1960s radicalism did not alter his very un-P.C. male sexuality.  Of course, it’s also possible that his character is supposed to be 10 years younger than Redford’s actual age (if so, he needed a better makeup artist), which would be right in keeping with the imagined reality that is supposed to represent our real world.

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