Coming Soon: Three Movies About the Ghosts of Activists Past

Coming Soon: Three Movies About the Ghosts of Activists Past
Fearing the worst: Elle Fanning in Sally Potter's "Ginger and Rosa"
(© A24)

It’s tempting to believe there’s more than mere coincidence in the releases within a seven-week span of Sally Potter’s “Ginger and Rosa” (next Friday), Robert Redford’s “The Company You Keep” (April 5), and Olivier Assayas’s “Something in the Air” (May 3).  The reason is that all three films evince, to a larger or lesser degree, nostalgia for the fervent student political activism of the 1960s and ’70s.

“Ginger and Rosa” focuses on the problems of a 17-year-old (Elle Fanning) who joins the British CND movement and marches with a ban-the-bomb banner at Aldermaston in 1962. “The Company You Keep” follows an incognito former Weather Underground activist (Redford) forced to go on the run 30 years after a bank robbery that ended in murder. “Something in the Air” re-creates high-school radicalism in the wake of the May 1968 Paris student protests.


The near-simultaneous arrival of these movies can’t help but point to the absence of a comparable contemporary protest movement – Redford’s character complains that kids today are too busy checking their Facebook pages. However, what connects the films, more than a sense of outrage that the activist torch has been dropped or lingering rage at the nuclear arms race, the Vietnam War, and (in France particularly) class discrimination and capitalism, is their sense of regret for a generation’s mislaid hopes of effecting change. 

“Ginger and Rosa” is the weakest on this score. Though Potter convincingly transmits the very real terror people had before and during the Cuba Missile Crisis that the world was headed for a catastrophic nuclear war, the film’s resonance is undercut by her psychological motives. Bravely played by Fanning, Ginger has become an activist to offset her emotional insecurity, which is exacerbated when her spineless pacifist father (Alessandro Nivola) starts sleeping with her best friend (Alice Englert).

The looking back is much more resonant in “The Company You Keep,” a tense adult American thriller based on Neil Gordon’s 2003 novel. As he makes his way as a fugitive across America, Redford’s Jim Grant, who’s made a life for himself as an Albany attorney and single parent, reconnects with his old Weather Underground colleagues, unearthing old tensions and affinities and a shared sense of failure and disillusion.

The steeliest of them is his former lover (Julie Christie), whose testimony, if he can get it, can absolve Grant of the murder charge. She alone has not sold out her ideals. The presence in the cast of Hollywood liberals Redford, Christie, Nick Nolte, and Susan Sarandon (as the W.U. member whose surrender triggers Grant’s flight) brings along the ghosts of their characters in, respectively, “The Chase,” “McCabe and Mrs. Miller,” “Who’ll Stop the Rain,” and “Joe.” The way they were, indeed.

Assayas’s approach to the revolutionary moment is more trenchantly analytical. Set in 1971, the fast-moving “Something in the Air” follows the progress of a handful of students – including the filmmaker's artist surrogate Gilles (Clément Métayer) – as they flee brutal riot police, daub slogans on their school's walls, and align themselves with Marxism, Maoism, or anarchy.

Scarcely a tract, the movie is propelled as much by Gilles’s romances – first with his unstable muse (Carole Combes), then with a fellow activist (Lola Créton) – as it is by his political energy. (Nor is his passion for the late-hippie-era music of Soft Machine and Syd Barrett et al. insignificant.) There’s a rueful honesty about the way Assayas shows Gilles’s career drive and artistic vocation gradually supplanting his moral outrage. The way the film ends suggests the memory of first love puts everything else in the shade.