‘The Company You Keep’ Review
There are probably more works of fiction about the Weather Underground than there were ever members.
Okay, that's a hyperbolic statement, but when you get in the mindset of the radical left of the 1960s and 1970s you tend to get a little grand in your rhetoric. The Weather Underground, if you don't know, was the anti-Vietnam youth movement so sickened by the US's foreign policy that they felt they had to “bring the war home” with acts of domestic terrorism. In real life, they called ahead to warn of bombs in government buildings – and the only blood they shed was their own during an explosives accident in a Greenwich Village apartment – but for the movies, even one by a bonafide liberal like Robert Redford, it is easy to paint them as people who let their ideals take them too far.
In 'The Company You Keep,' Redford plays Jim Grant, a pillar of society, single father and public interest attorney in a rather picturesque upstate NY town. When a former '60s radical (Susan Sarandon), who'd been living under an assumed name, is captured nearby by a new FBI division head looking to make a name for himself (Terrence Howard), a local newspaper reporter (and, yes, this dinosaur occupation is the source of much humor) played by Shia LaBeouf follows a line of inquiry to Redford's door. In time he uncovers that Redford's Jim Grant is actually Nick Sloan, a charismatic Weather Underground leader who's been atop the FBI's wanted list for 30 years.
For those of you who can count, yes, 30 years ago was 1983, not “the sixties.” However, in the early 1980s some former Weather Underground associates (Kathy Boudin among them) held up a Brinks truck and innocents were killed. A similar botched bank job is the event from the past that sent Redford underground, and now that his cover is blown he has to find the one person who can clear his name.
Why does he care to clear his name at this advanced age? Because he has a new calling – he's raising a little girl, and he's ready, willing and able to rejoin the society he once railed against to help nurture her. Sell out? Maybe. His former flame (Julie Christie) surely thinks so, but before he can reconnect with her, he's got to find her – not so easy to do with both newshound LaBeouf and the FBI on your tail.
'The Company You Keep' is an airport novel through and through, but Redford (director and star) does a great deal to elevate the material. Put bluntly, you know that he means it. Along his road trip he meets up with two of his old buddies - Nick Nolte, now working construction and sounding raspier than Miles Davis, and Richard Jenkins, a history prof who can pack a lecture hall with war stories from student occupation days. There's more substance in their sighs than in any of the dialogue in these scenes, proving once again that star charisma and the projected affections from an audience can sometimes add heft to a text that it doesn't have on its own.
Other boldfaced names appear – Sam Elliot, Brit Marling, Anna Kendrick, Chris Cooper, Stephen Root, Brendan Gleason – but the relationship that matters is between Redford and LaBeouf. It isn't lost on us that Redford's arguably most important role was that of a journalist, Bob Woodward, in 'All The President's Men.' Jim Grant/Nick Sloan (and, one imagines, Redford himself) has nothing but scorn for the journalistic practices of the day, and while the movie ends on a note of detente, we are not left with the feeling that LaBeouf is going to transform into a firebrand that rejuvenates this troubled industry. (If nothing else, he'll probably be getting laid off soon.) The ending is something of a switcheroo on 'Three Days of the Condor,' where Redford, ever respectful of the mainstream papers of record, is shocked by the implication that their ties to the government would kill a good story. Today the vibe is that anybody will print anything, but it won't actually matter much.
'The Company You Keep' has more than its share of problems. It is a tidal wave of plot. Each scene introduces new characters and new settings. It feels far longer than its 125-minute running time. The scenes with the elderly Redford and his moppety daughter are awkward. (There's a stray line about marrying late, but still.) Nevertheless, the apogee of the film – the eventual meeting between Redford and Christie is stellar stuff. Meeting at a old cabin in the woods, echoing Ingmar Bergman's 'Shame' or 'Saraband,' or Denys Arcand's 'The Barbarian Invasions,' one can't help but get emotional seeing changed faces of cinema icons saying things like, “I grew up.” When you consider that most of the movie options for stars of a certain age is humiliating garbage like 'Parental Guidance,' substantive work, even something as predictable as this, is a minor miracle.
**Note: You want to see some truly excellent movies about 1960s radicals? Here are three I absolutely recommend: Paul Schrader's 'Patty Hearst' from 1988, Bruno Barreto's 'Four Days in September' from 1997 and Koji Wakamatsu's 'United Red Army' from 2008.
'The Company You Keep' premieres in limited release Friday, April 5.
Jordan Hoffman is a writer, critic and lapsed filmmaker living in New York City. His work can also be seen on Film.com, Badass Digest and StarTrek.com.