Redford’s Untimely Terror Reminiscence

Original Article

Poor timing for Robert Redford: bringing out a film appreciation of a gang of radical left terrorists of 40 years ago–just days after the Islamist terror attack on the Boston Marathon.

But, wait, the terrorists back then were advancing a completely different cause! Surely that is what counts, right?

Not as far as I am concerned. Indeed, I was squirming with discomfort tonight as I watched The Company You Keep, the new melodrama produced, directed and starring Redford. The plot is set in the present but the film has the effect of trying to glamorize the 60’s Weathermen radicals who bombed and killed in the name of “peace”. They once may have been misguided, the film seems to say, but what a decent and cool bunch they still are!

The forces of authority get a few good lines, but the best and longest speeches go to the members of the network of Weathermen veterans.

Robert Redford is good at this. He made The Way We Were in 1973 with Barbara Steisand to serenade the Old Left, the reds and those falsely accused of being reds, in the bad old 1950s.

His new film’s protagonist was part of the “movement” of the late 60s and early 70s, but our contemporary hero doesn’t look fondly on the violence back then. Besides, he has a young daughter he wants to protect, so he doesn’t want to do time for a crime he didn’t commit in the past.

While the Redford character eludes the FBI in an effort to prove his innocence, the gauzy Redford directorial lens casts a cheery glow over the rest of the Weathermen. We are supposed to identify with this jaunty bunch, as well as with their former, more pacific comrade.

But in historical fact the Weathermen were terrorists. They broke the law, broke limbs and set off bombs. They wanted to provoke terror and, ultimately, revolution. The scale of violence in which they engaged was less than that of today’s terrorists, but the rationales are not so different. Every terrorist thinks his cause is just–and well worth the sacrifice of others. The film’s Susan Sarandon character says that with only a few qualifications, if she had to do it all over again, she would.

The new film is not likely to attract a young audience. It is Quartet for retired radicals. Just like the old musicians in Quartet, the old New Lefties reminisce about how things were “30 years ago”. But the events they commemorate actually were 40 and more years ago.

That would not matter so much if we did not have before us a contemporary 21st century challenge from terrorists. Please think of this movie with the Tsarnaev brothers in mind, along with the likely cell of terrorists who are linked with them.

In both cases, the FBI is on the trail. The trouble is, in the Redford film you are manipulated to side against the FBI. They are too driven and nasty as they chase down our hero. Would this be the same organization we are counting on to save us from today’s self-righteous and “idealistic” radicals?

In the film as in life the New Leftists who supported violence in the 60s are now professors at top universities, and they, too, have not repented. Meanwhile, what does this great tradition have to say to us about today’s fanatics who think the ends justifies the means?

Nothing. Redford’s film ends with his character whispering silently to his young daughter. We can’t hear the message. In truth, there isn’t any.

Bruce Chapman

Cofounder and Chairman of the Board of Discovery Institute
Bruce Chapman has had a long career in American politics and public policy at the city, state, national, and international levels. Elected to the Seattle City Council and as Washington State's Secretary of State, he also served in several leadership posts in the Reagan administration, including ambassador. In 1991, he founded the public policy think tank Discovery Institute, where he currently serves as Chairman of the Board and director of the Chapman Center on Citizen Leadership.