×

Robert Redford Keeps ‘Company’ With America

Film on the Weather Underground fits comfortably in a canon that examines nation from all angles

In Robert Redford’s America, red, white and blue are all just varying shades of gray.

(From the pages of the April 9 issue of Variety.)

“I’m fascinated by the country I grew up in, and what that country really is, not just what it’s been propagandized to be,” says the 76-year-old actor-director, whose latest film “The Company You Keep” debuted this weekend in Los Angeles and New York.

As a younger man, Redford says, “it felt to me like America was always wanting to resolve things too quickly, without thinking through what the costs and consequences would be, and how that affects an individual living in that world. Then as I grew up and went about my life, I think I just got more and more interested in that gray area where things are not so easily quantified.”

Time and again over the course of his now 50-year career, Redford has returned to that no-man’s land between the real America and how America sees itself. The result is a panoramic portrait of a nation at a constant moral and political crossroads, from the Hollywood Blacklist (“The Way We Were”) and the TV gameshow scandals of the 1950s (“Quiz Show”), to the Lincoln assassination (“The Conspirator”), Watergate (“All the President’s Men”) and the recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (“Lions for Lambs”).

With “The Company You Keep,” he turns his attention for the first time to the complex legacy of Vietnam-era radicalism, in the story of former members of the Weather Underground on the run from the FBI, from a zealous small-town reporter and — most of all — from their own unresolved pasts.

Like many of his pictures, Redford’s latest is an overtly political film but not a polemical one. The filmmaker is less interested in leveling moral judgments than in showing how personal ideologies evolve over the decades, and how one era’s conscientious objectors may become viewed, through the prism of time, as domestic terrorists.

Redford was never a radical, though in the years before he landed in New York and committed himself to an acting career, the L.A. native and U. of Colorado dropout spent time living in Paris in a kind of student commune, where he found his naive ideas about his homeland challenged by more worldly housemates.

So Redford embarked on a steady diet of European newspapers, resolved to understand America as it was viewed by the rest of the world. By the time he landed back home two years later, “I was filled with experiences of real-life situations and the myths of this country. I guess that’s where it all started.”

Today, Redford is still chipping away at those myths, though the work has gotten steadily harder. In the 1970s and ’80s, when he was at the peak of his stardom, and directors like Sydney Pollack and Alan Pakula were routinely turning out smart, politically astute dramas for grown-up moviegoers, “The Company You Keep” would surely have been a prestige release for a major Hollywood studio.

In today’s tentpole-dominated climate, it took Redford four years to secure independent financing (from Nicolas Chartier’s Voltage Pictures) for the project — resulting in a modest budget that forced the sprawling drama (which takes place in upstate New York, Manhattan and Ann Arbor) to shoot all of its locations in Vancouver.

Together with the independently produced “The Conspirator,” it’s been a crash course for Redford in the kind of no-frills filmmaking his Sundance Institute has been supporting for the past three decades.

“I guess you would call this a classical drama,” he says of “Company,” which Sony Pictures Classics is releasing domestically. “It’s story, character and emotion put in a very clear pattern so the audience can follow it. We’re surrounded by films now that I would call ‘splash filmmaking’ — heavily energized, heavily violent, not so much about story. There are a lot of filmmakers today whose technical skills I admire, but where’s the story? It’s exciting to watch what they do for a few minutes, but it evaporates like cotton candy.”

Curiously, a “splash” movie lies in Redford’s own future: The Marvel sequel “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” in which he will play the head of the galactic protection agency known as S.H.I.E.L.D., and about which he has little to say except that “it’s a film I’m doing because it’s just something different and unexpected.”

He’s keener to talk about another project much closer to his heart, “All the President’s Men Revisited,” a feature-length documentary looking back at the iconic 1976 film and the real events that inspired
it, which will air on the Discovery Channel in April following a gala premiere in Washington, D.C.

“That’s something I’m pretty proud of,” says Redford, who appears in the film and served as an executive producer. “It’s about the media back then, and we leave it to you the audience to think about what the Internet, the pressures of corporate control, and the obsession with money and profit have done to journalism. All we say is, ‘This is the way it was then. Does anyone remember this?’ ”

More Biz

  • Hong Kong skyline

    Hong Kong Declares Emergency in Coronavirus Response

    Hong Kong’s government has put the territory on the highest state of emergency in response to the outbreak of coronavirus in mainland China. Schools will remain closed until Feb. 17, long after the Chinese New Year holidays, which begin today, should have finished. Hong Kong is a Special Administrative Area of China and some 600 [...]

  • Harvey Mason Jr.., Chair of the

    Grammy Board Chief Calls Allegations of Nomination-Rigging ‘Just Not Right’

    Among the many allegations in ousted Recording Academy CEO Deborah Dugan’s blockbuster legal complaint, the one that possibly cuts most to the heart of the institution — and is of most concern to artists and the public — is the allegation that the nominating process is “rigged.” The example in the complaint points to the [...]

  • Annabella Sciorra

    Friend Tells of Annabella Sciorra's Mid-1990s Struggles at Harvey Weinstein Trial

    A longtime friend of Annabella Sciorra testified Friday in Harvey Weinstein’s criminal trial that the actor turned to cutting herself and exhibited other troubling behavior in the mid-1990s after she was allegedly raped by the disgraced film mogul. The defense questioning of model Kara Young got heated as Judge James Burke sustained repeated objections to [...]

  • Writers vs Agents Packaging War WGA

    Judge Doubts WGA Claim That Packaging Fees Are Kickbacks

    A federal judge seemed skeptical on Friday of the Writers Guild of America’s claim that packaging fees amount to a criminal kickback to agents. Judge Andre Birotte heard more than two hours of arguments from attorneys for the guild and three agencies: WME, UTA and CAA. He said he would issue a ruling at a [...]

  • Songs for Screens Powered by Mac

    Songs for Screens: Why Aerosmith Is Still Gold for Synchs

    Aerosmith’s star-studded tribute concert as the 2020 MusiCares Person of the Year honorees on Friday night (January 24) will cement another important milestone in the historic Boston-founded band’s contributions to the American rock canon. But over the past decade, some of the band’s best-known music has remained part of the cultural conversation through some of [...]

  • Sirius Logo

    Radio Hall of Famer Kid Kelly Leaves SiriusXM After Two Decades

    In a surprise move, veteran programmer, on-air personality and Radio Hall of Famer Kid Kelly has left SiriusXM after nearly 20 years with the radio giant, a rep for the company has confirmed to Variety. The news was first reported by RAMP. He most recently served as SiriusXM’s VP of Pop Music Programming. “After a [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content