Robert Redford’s The Company You Keep benefits from an intriguing premise and intelligent twists and turns. It also is notable for the company Redford himself keeps, in the form of a superb cast. But when the dust finally settles in this political-journalistic crime thriller, we’re left with not much more than the characters’ memories from years past and our own nostalgia for All the President’s Men.
But perhaps it’s not fair to compare this film with the 1976 masterpiece about Watergate, which starred Redford but was helmed by Alan Pakula. Redford may be no Pakula, but he’s certainly no slouch. He hasn’t directed a masterpiece since Quiz Show in 1994, though, and it shows with his latest project, which is more of a slow-burn drama than a tight thriller. Nevertheless, from Lem Dobbs’ adaptation of Neil Gordon’s historical novel, Redford has crafted something smart that’s worth seeing, if not particularly worth remembering.
Redford plays an aging – the blond hair can’t disguise his 76 years anymore – lawyer raising his 11-year-old daughter by himself following his wife’s death. An old friend (the solid but underused Susan Sarandon) has just been arrested for her involvement 30 years ago with the Weather Underground, a militant anti-Vietnam protest group. Seeing the arrest as an opportunity to finally track down the rest of the group, both the FBI and newspaper reporter Shia LaBeouf (in a surprisingly good turn as the second lead) are hot on the trail of Redford and anyone else with knowledge of the members’ whereabouts.
Redford’s character’s involvement, and even his true identity, is not revealed right away – and you’ll get no spoilers here – but don’t expect a huge surprise. Expect, instead, in Redford style, interesting characters, insightful (though a tad heavy-handed) political discussions and a great supporting cast – too great, actually, as the parade of stars is a bit distracting. There’s Anna Kendrick as a novice FBI agent, Stanley Tucci as a newspaper editor and Chris Cooper as the brother of Redford’s character. Throw in Brit Marling, Richard Jenkins, Terrence Howard, Brendan Gleeson, Sam Elliot, the incomparable Julie Christie and Nick Nolte in the film’s juiciest, and craggiest, supporting role, and you’ve got the best entourage this side of a Robert Altman flick. None of them has much to do, but it’s still fun having them along for the ride.
The Company You Keep is best when it presents the moral questions Redford is known for: What is the meaning of right and wrong in political activism and journalism? And was the Weather Underground justified in committing murder – and still justified for not necessarily feeling guilt for the crimes?
The film doesn’t attempt to definitively answer these questions, which is wise, but it does provide a unique perspective on a generation that is too often portrayed simply as hippies, with little thought as to motivation. As Sarandon’s character says, “It was revolution. I wanted to be part of it.” “Groovy,” responds LaBeouf.
“It was anything but groovy,” answers Sarandon.
★★★ (out of 5 stars)