The Company You Keep Worth Inviting Onto Your DVD Player

THE COMPANY YOU KEEP (2012) –Video Review
Directed by Robert Redford
Sony Pictures Classics, 121 minutes, R (language)
* * * *

The Company You Keep won several prizes at the Venice Film Festival and is one of the better films made about post-Sixties radicals. Chances are good you’ve not seen it. It made a paltry $5.1 million at the U.S. box office. Go to Rotten Tomatoes or IMDB and you’ll find middling to low ratings. So let me get this off my chest right away: This superb film was ignored because of its politics, not because of its lack of merit. That is to say, it doesn’t get down on its knees and beg the Right’s forgiveness for Sixties’ idealism.

Quite the opposite. The film opens with the arrest of Sharon Solarz (Susan Sarandon), a former member of the Weather Underground who is wanted for murder. She’s been hiding in plain sight for decades–as a housewife in Vermont–and the irony of her arrest is that she was on her way to turn herself in when the FBI finally nabbed her. The film is fictional, but the Solarz character is a mash of two very real former 60s political prisoners: former SDS bomb maker Cathy Wilkerson, who submitted to arrest in 1980; and Kathy Boudin, who went to prison in 1984 for her role in a Brinks truck hijacking in which two cops were killed. (Boudin wasn’t at the site; she was supposed to drive the get-away vehicle once robbers ditched their car.) Both Wilkerson and Boudin admitted they did some ill-considered things and Boudin, who served 20 years in prison, claimed it wasn’t part of the plan to hurt anyone and was torn by grief that it happened. What neither of them did was apologize for opposing the government, their desire to change the system, or the validity of their ideals. Sarandon recreates that sentiment in jail where reporter Ben Shepard (Shia LaBeouf) asks if she’d do it all again. She lectures the too-young Shepard on the evils of Vietnam and the government’s war on civil rights leaders. Then she looks him in the eyes and proclaims, “Yes. If I didn’t have kids, I’d do it again.” Well, we all know only the Tea Party is allowed to say things like this about the government.   

What makes The Company You Keep miles better than schmaltzy claptrap like Taking Woodstock, Forrest Gump, or the gadzillions of 60s-rock star films is that it unabashedly deals with politics and isn’t afraid to show that many people still believe the things they professed five decades ago. Those folks aren’t starry-eyed about any of it, but neither do they seek absolution. (Any remorse they feel is on the personal level, not the ones where political and social power reside.) The movie centers on Shepard and Jim Grant (Redford), a widowed attorney who refuses to take the Solarz case or explain to the nosy Shepard why. Shepard digs and discovers that Grant is actually Nick Sloan, a former Weatherman himself wanted for murder, but presumed dead. This sends Jim/Nick scurrying in a mad dash to clear his name and protect his eleven-year-old daughter, Isabel (Jackie Evancho). Nick must stay one step ahead of both Shepard and FBI agent Cornelius (Terence Howard) by drawing upon an underground network that’s still very much intact.

From here it’s pretty much a standard political thriller insofar as the chase goes, but Redford does a terrific job of probing relationships between people who once so thoroughly bonded through idealism that it’s as if their friendships have merely been on a 40-year hiatus. There are terrific cameo roles for gifted actors such as Richard Jenkins, Nick Nolte, Sam Elliott, and the still-striking-after-all-these-years Julie Christie. Kudos also go to Chris Cooper as Nick’s brother, Stanly Tucci as an exasperated editor, and Brendan Gleeson as Henry Osborne, the retired detective who investigated the murder for which Nick is accused. Okay, so maybe Shepard is a bit too intuitive to be believable (or maybe the FBI really is this dumb). Perhaps LaBeouf, Evancho, and Brit Marling (as Osborne’s daughter) come close to setting off “over-precious” alarms, and maybe the film’s resolution is too pat, but the pacing is taut, the dialogue is earnest, and the suspense palpable. Forget what you’ve heard–or didn’t hear–about this film. It’s an intelligent look at the post-Sixties life of former Weathermen and the sort of mature filmmaking we’ve come to expect of Robert Redford, who long ago proved he’s always been more than just a pretty face.  Rob Weir 


Defending Jacob: Confronting the Unthinkable

Defending Jacob (2012)
William Landay
Random House 978040246138
* * * *

As a parent, what could you imagine of your child? Or, more to the point, what could you not imagine? That’s the unsettling question at the heart of William Landay’s gripping page-turner Defending Jacob. It’s one part thriller, one part mystery, one part courtroom drama, and one part family nightmare. It adds up to a book that intrigues, terrifies, and can’t be put down.

Andy and Laurie Barber are living the dream. They reside in the tony Boston suburb of Newton, are considered pillars of the community, and are surrounded by people they consider friends. Andy is the first assistant to the District Attorney—a guy everyone trusts. Until they don’t. The Barber dream world begins to fall apart when a 14-yeard-old kid, Ben Rifkin, is brutally slain in the sort of suburban park where things like that aren’t supposed to happen. As first assistant, Andy and his buddy, State Police Detective Paul Duffy, roll up their sleeves and search for Ben’s killer. Until they can’t. Neal Logiudice, Andy’s ambitious but overly zealous former protégé, is now in charge and has removed them from the case. That’s because the prime suspect is no longer a local pedophile; it’s the Barbers’ 14-year-old son, Jacob. The Barbers cannot imagine that their son could do such a thing, but their neighbors can, and when Jacob is charged, the Barbers go from golden couple to community pariahs in the flash of a Rolodex-waving hand. They also quickly learn how little they know about the 14-year-old mind, Facebook, or the shadowy edges of online subcultures.  

Disturbing stuff—but just what 14-year-old boys dabble in, right? Jacob can’t be a killer. Right? Could your kid? And once you “know” that your kid has been wrongly accused, to what lengths would you go to protect him? What if you were convinced that the real killer is still on the loose and that a prosecutor like Logiudice is using you and your child as a stepping stone to further his own career? How would you behave? What would you do when he concocts a story that there is a “murder gene” plaguing your blood line? Especially when you’ve not been forthcoming with your spouse about your birth family tree? Do you ever, even for a moment, wonder if what is being said might be true?

You’ll find yourself ripping through Defending Jacob if, for no other reason, the above questions are so disturbing you can’t rest until you know how they’re answered. You’ll also find yourself drawn in because you can imagine the very things you say that you can’t. And you’ll be rewarded, though not necessarily satisfied, by the many twists and turns this well-crafted, skillfully penned novel takes. No spoilers here except to say that the resolutions are seldom formulaic or predictable. This is creepy nail- biter will leave you shattered no matter whose side you take.­ 
Rob Weir


Black Art on Exhibit at Williams College

72 Degrees: Los Angeles Art from the Collection
Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles 1960-1980
Williams College Museum of Art
Until December 1, 2013.

Betye Saar
Most visitors venturing to the Berkshires hamlet of Williamstown, Massachusetts, head straight for the Clark Art Institute. There’s nothing wrong with that, as the Clark is an American treasure, but it’s stunning how few people ever set foot in the Williams College Art Museum. T’is a shame, as it’s free, easy to find (on Route 2, just past the village’s only commercial street), and does exactly what a small museum should do–borrow freely, mount non-blockbuster shows, curate intelligently, and present the works in easily accessible ways. If there were a prize for art labels written in plain English, Williams would win hands down.

With many of the Clark’s galleries closed until renovations are finished next June, you’ve no excuse for not hitting the WCMA. Another good reason to go is to take in the sort of “small” shows that have become its signature. Through the end of November, Williams has two shows that spotlight Los Angeles artists, most of whom are African American. The two, 72 Degrees: Los Angeles Art from the Collection and Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles 1960-1980, run together seamlessly on the second floor and the only real difference is that Williams owns most of the works in the first show, but not the second. Both feature assemblages, graphics, sculptures, paintings, lithographs, and mixed media works and, as the title alerts, most of it comes from 1960 to 1980. This is, of course, a crucial period in both LA and national history. Think civil rights movement, Watts, Vietnam, Black Panthers, urban tension, police brutality…. Above all, think full personhood–a moment in which black identity is asserted boldly and without apology. The works presented in these shows could be viewed as a sort of visual rap and, if you don’t always get it, so be it–it’s not about you!

A handful of the artists–Betye Saar, Mel Edwards, David Hammons–have made a splash in the art world. Others, including John Outterbridge, combined art with social activism and is perhaps better known for the latter activity. But if neither these names, nor ones such as Alonzo Davis or Noah Purifoy ring a bell, two thoughts come to mind. The first is that it’s time to educate yourself; the second is that you can do so at the WCMA without being overwhelmed.

John Riddle--Gradual Troop Withdrawal
You probably won’t like all of the art, whether you get it or not. I was mesmerized by John T. Riddle’s Gradual Troop Withdrawal, as powerful an anti-Vietnam War work as I’ve ever encountered. His solider is rendered as a metal ribbon who is literally coming unwound before our eyes. (And check out its similarity’s to Robert Capa’s 1936 photo Death of a Loyalist Soldier.) By contrast, I have to say that I read Senga Nengudi’s artistic statement and found it interesting conceptually but, for me, her works fashioned from ripped panty hose didn’t link idea to object in interesting ways. But what do I know? I overheard several people raving over her work. And therein lies still another tale. With 140 works representing 33 artists, there’s food for lots of thought, but in doses everyone can digest. --Rob Weir