THE COMPANY YOU KEEP directed by Robert Redford, written by Lem Dobbs from the novel by Neil Gordon, with Redford, Shia LaBeouf, Susan Sarandon and Julie Christie. 122 minutes. An eOne release. Opens Friday (April 26). For venues and times, see listings.
You might assume that Sundance founder and liberal activist Robert Redford thinks movies can change the world. But you'd be wrong.
"I learned the hard way that you don't change things by making a film," says the director and star of The Company You Keep in a downtown hotel room during last fall's Toronto Film Festival.
"The first film I was able to make as an actor and executive producer was The Candidate, which was about the political system in our country and how we elect people based on cosmetics and not substance. And look who we ended up with: Dan Quayle and George Bush."
The Oscar-winning icon, still boyish-looking despite the well-lined face, sits comfortably in jacket, shirt and tasselled loafers - no socks. And he talks a blue streak, almost filling up our time slot after just one question. Once Redford gets on a roll, there's no stopping him.
He says he got interested in radical activists in the Weatherman underground, forced to live underground as fugitives, because of his own memories.
"It's my time," he says, point blank. "There was something thrilling about being of that time, in that place - there was the combination of what was going on with music, with drugs, with free love. The barricades were coming down, and it was very exciting.
"I was sympathetic to the anti-war cause. I did not get directly involved in fighting it - I was starting a family and a career and I had to make a choice, but I had friends who did."
When asked what happened to the energy and passion of that movement, he has his theories.
"Well, they self-destructed. It has to do with too much ego, with how pleased they were with themselves and the way they went over the top with flaunting it. I could see it coming. It self-destructed."
The Company You Keep, Redford says, is really about grey areas. He wants to stir sympathy for members of the movement - some of whom bombed property and accidentally killed people - while at the same time showing their underlying motivations.
"I was thinking about the complexity of that grey zone. The people in the movement were once all together but then had to take on false identities Some grew out of that. There's regret: ‘I was young and blinded by the passion of the times.' It's only a matter of time before people say, ‘I have to be who I really am.'"
But some stay true to the cause, like Mimi, the character played by Julie Christie, who disdains the fugitives who turned themselves in. Exchanges about ethics and commitment between her and Redford's character, her former comrade, are loaded with meaty content.
"The original material didn't have all that dialogue. But you have to bring your own knowledge and feelings into the picture. People say film isn't a literary medium, but I don't agree. At the same time, you want actions to speak for themselves. You can cloud something with too much talk. The idea was to make the talk succinct."
Redford's hope is that people can see the film as a piece of American history.
"America's not particularly good at looking at the grey zone or at learning from history. And the problem is compounded by the fact that it was such a combustible time.
"You saw what happened to Jane Fonda. Some people still haven't forgiven her."