Produced and distributed by Universal Pictures
Written and directed by Joseph Kosinski from his graphic novel
The Company You Keep
Produced by Voltage Pictures
Directed by Robert Redford
Screenplay by Lem Dobbs from the novel by Neil Gordon
Distributed by Sony Pictures Classics
Oblivion seems to me an experiment in form following function. Its off-the-shelf science-fiction narrative unwinds in such a perversely baffling manner that you have to wonder if writer-director Joseph Kosinski was determined to have his audience follow his characters into their state of memory-erased oblivion. If so, he nearly succeeded with me. A third of the way through the film, I rushed to the theater’s refreshment stand to fortify myself with a triple espresso. Had I not, I would almost certainly have nodded off and missed the glacial denouement when it finally arrived.
I did somewhat better than Julia (Olga Kurylenko). When she finally shows up nearly an hour after the opening credits, she’s in a sleep capsule, and planet patrolman Jack (Tom Cruise) has to wake her from a 60-year nap. At first he hasn’t a clue to who she is, but now, as she revives in his arms, he discovers she’s . . . No, that’s as far as I’ll go. I shouldn’t deprive you of whatever scrap of suspense there is to be had from this film. Together with a dose of espresso, it may just keep you awake. I can only reveal that to the best of my knowledge Julia hadn’t been sequestered somewhere in New Jersey.
Before Julia arrives, Jack has been daily flitting about over a war-scorched landscape in a cool dragonfly-shaped helicopter. It’s 2077, and he’s the last man on earth, living with the last woman, Victoria (Andrea Riseborough), in a penthouse atop a spindle tower in the clouds. The earth has been rendered uninhabitable after a ferocious war with some aliens who, as aliens always do, had sought to help themselves to our resources—all of them. The war drove out the invaders but in the process shattered the moon and thereby wrecked the planet by upsetting the gravitational field, provoking tectonic shifts and letting loose calamitous tidal waves. All the usual landmarks were smashed: the Brooklyn Bridge, Yankee Stadium, and, most nostalgically, the Empire State Building. Now Jack and Victoria must keep a fleet of drones in good working order so that they can scour the earth hunting lingering aliens. This way the other remaining humans harbored in a diamond-shaped satellite will have time to send water and supplies to Titan, one of Saturn’s more habitable moons, where they plan to begin again.
So far, so familiar. With the arrival of Julia, however, the proceedings are knocked off kilter. For one thing, Victoria doesn’t appreciate Julia’s sleeping-beauty act. Complications arise. When Jack brings this princess back to their home in the sky, Victoria understandably threatens to lock them out. Furthermore, Sally (Melissa Leo), Jack’s boss aboard the satellite, also becomes curious, not to say testy, about Julia. It takes filmdom’s most beloved deus ex machina, Morgan Freeman, to clue Jack in.
Oblivion’s not much of a movie, but, let me tell you, for credibility and genuine emotion it flies warp speed ahead of Robert Redford’s latest, a fantasy called The Company You Keep.
You have to admire Redford. At 76, he’s managed to stay extraordinarily young. Look at his remarkably red hair, youthfully tousled yet graying with mature dignity at his temples. See him run in the park! Watch him outsmart the FBI men on his trim tail! Why, the man is positively ageless. And his ideals! My word, they’re still as vibrant as they were when he made The Candidate in 1972. The only difference is that, in 1972, his ideals were more than left-wing clichés, and he was poised to make some of the most important films of the last quarter of the 20th century. In Company, unfortunately, he’s embraced William Wordsworth’s youthful infatuation with the French Revolution. “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, / But to be young was very Heaven!” he said in The Prelude (1805). Wordsworth repented as he matured, but Redford has not grown beyond the bliss, despite the film’s dialogue that has his character chide others for not growing up. It’s the geriatric Bob, I’m afraid, who could use some aging. Maybe it’s too much for him.
In The Company You Keep, Redford, following Neil Gordon’s unbelievably drippy and wholly dishonest novel of the same title, has chosen to present former members of everyone’s favorite terrorist group, the Weather Underground, as admirable patriots whose only sin was to have been impatient. They knew what had to be done and were understandably irate when others didn’t snap to when they issued their commands. Because others refused to listen and obey, they took up extreme tactics now and again—forgery, armed robbery, bombing, murder, and other such infractions.
This is Redford’s theme, and if you think it juvenile, I’d agree, adding only the substantive delinquent after the adjective.
Company is loosely based on the Weather Underground’s murderous antics, particularly the 1981 robbery of a Brink’s armored truck in Nanuet, New York, perpetrated by the wealthy brats Kathy Boudin and David Gilbert in concert with thugs from the Black Liberation Army. Redford fudges the real-life events that supposedly inspired this story. He has these folks forced to desperate measures by the war in Vietnam. Yet the Brink’s robbery took place in 1981, six years after hostilities had ended. What’s more, in his fictional account, a lone bank guard is shot dead, not two police officers and a Brink’s guard at the hands of Boudin and company. Neither Gordon nor Redford was obligated to adhere to the details of the Nanuet robbery, but it’s telling that they clearly modeled the fictional event on this crime while making sure to soften its consequences. Redford adopts the attitude that the death was unfortunate but, on the other hand, that it hardly justified the manner in which these young idealists were hunted afterward. It’s clear he wants us to moderate the severity of their crime in light of their intentions. As Shia LaBeouf (playing a journalist) says after interviewing the Kathy Boudin figure, they may have been wrong, but “you have to admire their commitment.” This is not meant to depict the journalist as simpleminded. Redford gave an interview to the New York Times in which he says pretty much the same thing. Elsewhere in this interview, Redford astonishingly compares his narrative with Victor Hugo’s in Les Misérables. The FBI agents are inflexible, remorseless Javerts, and the radicals are righteous, hounded Jean Valjeans. As I recall, Jean Valjean neither killed policemen nor set off bombs on his way to stealing that loaf of bread. Lenin spoke of useful idiots. I’m afraid Redford must be counted among their numbers.
To be fair, the Misérables comparison does have its gravamen of justice. Like Hugo’s work, Redford’s is a profound indulgence in sentimentality. The man from Utah seems entirely incapable of seeing enemies on the left.
For what it’s worth, here’s the plot. Sharon Solarz (Susan Sarandon), an aging but still beautiful woman, serves her family breakfast and bids husband and children adieu. Moments later a squad of SUVs descends on her at a gas station. With guns drawn, no fewer than eight FBI agents in bulletproof vests jump from their vehicles, shove the mother against her car, read her her rights, and then cuff and arrest her while she stares stoically into the middle distance. The FBI, being the vindictive fascists they are, have never forgiven her that bank robbery she committed with her friends 30 years ago. Decent people, on the other hand, regard it as a youthful lapse in good manners.
We cut from Mrs. Solarz’s arrest to another household, in which widower Jim Grant (Robert Redford) is serving his 11-year-old daughter her breakfast before driving her to school. (I guess he doesn’t believe in busing.) Dropping her off, Grant learns of Solarz’s arrest from a mutual acquaintance, and the shit hits the fan, as they used to say. Grant is really Nick Sloan, you see, a Weatherman who went personally underground after the same bank robbery, changing his name and taking up a new life as a social-activist lawyer in Albany, New York.
So Sloan goes on the run. He puts his daughter in his physician brother’s care and begins dodging the FBI and a punk reporter from the Albany Sun Times who’s looking to make a score on his travail.
The rest of the film is a cross-country sprint—no, make that a shuffle, as these characters are in their 70’s—as the FBI hunts Sloan. Along the way, Sloan meets with members of his old gang. There’s big-bellied Nick Nolte, who owns a lumberyard in Milwaukee; Richard Jenkins, a Midwestern university professor who teaches Marxist-flavored history; and Julie Christie, who runs a marijuana-smuggling operation in the Big Sur. In each meeting we learn more about Sloan and his role in the Weather Underground. We’re assured he was an utterly sincere and not-all-murderous member of the movement. After all, this is Robert Redford we’re talking about. When he finally catches up with Christie, the woman who can save him from jail, a couple of mysteries we’ve long since solved get their official explanations.
Redford’s cast are all in fine geezer form, even if they have to mouth the most insufferable clichés about the 60’s, which were really the 70’s and, in this case, the 80’s. The leftist nostalgia is enough to sober an acid-dropping hippie.
The one laugh in this otherwise solemnly correct film comes when Redford watches his old buddy Jed teaching a college class. As a tenured radical par excellence, he’s exhorting his students to reject historians who preach that history is the product of macro forces such as wealth and geography, culture and nationalism. No, he assures them, history is made by individuals, passionate individuals, even if Saint Karl would disagree. (And you thought college classrooms were hotbeds of Marxian analysis.) Concluding his lecture to a room full of rapt students, he plugs his next class. “We’ll be discussing Frantz Fanon,” he chortles gleefully. When he’d been in the movement 30 years ago, he had always been against violence. Now that he’s cozily ensconced in academia, he’s free to discuss a revolutionary theorist who openly espoused violence. Fanon had called it cleansing, necessary to sweep away the bourgeois filth retarding true social progress. Is Redford’s point that ex-revolutionaries are hypocrites? I can’t say. It would, after all, require a sense of irony that’s conspicuously absent elsewhere in this silly film.