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Progressives with Bombs

The whitewashing of the Weather Underground

Jun 3, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 36 • By PETER COLLIER
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At one point in The Company You Keep, Robert Redford’s new film about the residue of the Weather Underground, a character named Sharon Solarz is captured by the FBI after living under a series of aliases since her involvement in a Michigan bank robbery decades earlier in which a security guard was killed. Ruminating in her cell, she describes for a young journalist the moral dilemma people like her faced back then. They could either sit by and watch as America destroyed the innocent peasant culture of Vietnam or take arms against atrocity. She says decisively of her group’s decision to go all-in against the war in Vietnam, “We made mistakes, but we were right,” and then, after a beat, “I’d do it again.” 

Someday, they’ll all be hanging out in faculty lounges.

Someday, they’ll all be hanging out in faculty lounges.

AP/ Chicago Police Department

At about the same time that The Company You Keep was being previewed, New York University announced that it was appointing Kathy Boudin, real-life model for the Solarz character, as a 2013 scholar-in-residence at the law school. It might have been called a harmonic convergence back when the Weatherpeople first made news with their Days of Rage, but since then the college campus has been well established as a rehab center for members of the sect looking to reenter the mainstream. Before Boudin (who, in addition to the NYU gig, has an assistant professorship at the Columbia University School of Social Work), Mark Rudd, Howie Machtingter, and, of course, Bernardine Dohrn and Bill Ayers, Weatherman’s Bonnie and Clyde, all used university jobs to regain their footing as they resumed their pursuit of the revolution they once thought would be created by propaganda of the deed but concluded, after a few years of paranoid anonymity in the underground, might better be pursued through propaganda of the word. 

Kathy Boudin was the hardest case. Still underground after the others had come up, she’d been the getaway driver in the notorious 1981 Brink’s robbery in which one guard was murdered. After her getaway vehicle was stopped, she lured four Nyack policemen who arrived on the scene into an ambush where they were cut down by the other gang members’ automatic weapons; two policemen were killed (including Waverly Brown, first black officer on the force). When she resurfaced after serving part of her murder sentence, she couldn’t very well use the defense of other Weather Underground members that they had, after all, engaged only in victimless crime, or that they were just antiwar protesters, America having fled in ignominy from the Saigon embassy six years before Brink’s. But the universities that brought her aboard not only offered respectability and a paycheck, but also, as writer Michael Moynihan has noted, purged her curriculum vitae of all its pungent factuality. NYU’s press release announcing her appointment merely certifies that Boudin has been “dedicated to community involvement in social change since the 1960’s.”

Social change, in fact, is also what Weatherman is all about in The Company You Keep. Redford’s character, Jim Grant, a former member of Solarz’s cell who has long since said goodbye to all that and made a new life (under a false identity) as a public interest lawyer and single father to his 11-year-old daughter, is outed by her capture. He then goes on a quest to find Mimi Lurie (Julie Christie), his lover from the underground days who also was part of the Michigan bank job and has been hiding out ever since. She is the only person who can prove that he wasn’t even there on the day the crime went down and thus help him keep the FBI from separating him from his child. 

Grant’s quest takes him into the gauzy world inhabited by comrades from 40 years ago—one of them a lumber yard owner still guarding the secrets of the old gang with the fierce loyalty that the film sees as a sign of the group’s moral character; another is now a professor Grant finds in an Ann Arbor lecture hall discussing Marx (quelle surprise!) and then assigning Frantz Fanon for the next class session. 

With their help, Grant finally meets with Mimi in a cabin in Upper Michigan, a love shack from their past. She is still committed to the cause and has no sympathy for his timorous second thoughts. They bicker about the way they were and the way they ought to be, and then, in a climactic scene, Mimi fiercely rebukes Grant’s bourgeois obsession about what will befall his daughter if he is arrested. She ends her little tirade by saying, as if she has stumbled on something profound, “I still believe in change!” 

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