To some degree, your feelings about Robert Redford’s latest film are going to come down to political leanings — and considering it’s directed by Redford, it’s a given that the film’s own leanings are to the left. It will also come as no surprise that the Internet is already buzzing with attacks on the film — mostly by people not on the left who haven’t seen it (of course, it’s the Internet). However, the attacks are actually a lot of fuss over things the film isn’t. Oh, I’m not saying The Company You Keep isn’t leftist — it is — but it’s not (as is assumed) really a film about the Weather Underground. It’s only slightly more about the historical Weather Underground than Gone with the Wind is about the Civil War. It’s based on a novel by Neil Gordon (adapted to screenplay form by frequent Steven Sorderbergh-collaborator Lem Dobbs) and is a work of fiction that uses fanciful former members of the Weather Underground in a story that’s being sold as a political thriller. Frankly, it’s more of a political suspense drama than it is a thriller, which is hardly a surprise given Redford’s typically straighforward, slighly laid-back directing style. And it’s a good — if not great — film due to its craftsmanship, its generally shrewd casting and, yes, its thematic concept.
Plot-wise, the film is essentially a man-on-the-run piece with the man in question being a lawyer known as Jim Grant (Redford), who used to be a member of the Weather Underground under the name Nick Sloan. The situation is set in motion when an old comrade of his, Sharon Solarz (Susan Sarandon), is arrested on 30-plus-year-old charges by the FBI. It’s Grant’s refusal to defend her that interests reporter Ben Shepard (a surprisngly good Shia LaBeouf) in him and leads to his blown cover. The bulk of the film concerns Sloan’s efforts to find the one person, Mimi Lurie (Julie Christie), who can clear him (if she will), and Shepard’s attempts to track Sloan down and understand what’s going on — all while an unlikable FBI agent (Terrence Howard) is also on the trail. Several of the sequences — like Sloan passing his young daughter (Jackie Evancho) to his estranged brother Daniel (Chris Cooper) for safekeeping during his flight — generate credible suspense, but the film is never really a thriller, nor do I think it’s intended to be. Instead it’s a kind of suspense-driven character study of both aging 1960s-70s radicals and the current generation.
The film mostly works, and does so in part because of the baggage of its older cast members, who bring not only their experience to the film, but our perceptions of them. It is certainly no accident that the old FBI picture of Redford is from his Sundance Kid era — complete with mustache. Suddenly, it’s as if the film is a reflection of our collective past with pop culture and politics colliding as they have for as long as I can remember. And while there’s no denying that the deck is stacked to favor Redford’s character — with him having dropped out in a fit of conscience before the bank robbery that resulted in a murder — the film doesn’t whitewash,deify or even justify the Weather Underground on the whole, then or now. In many respects, it’s a vehicle for reflecting on the presumed, uncommitted and self-centered nature of the younger characters, especially LaBeouf’s reporter. It’s never just the trouble that the young reporter can cause, it’s his lack of any concern for anyone or anything outside himself. And this is what the old radical finds dispiriting — as dispiriting in its own way as is the past that Sloan doesn’t really want to confront, but cannot escape.
The Company You Keep isn’t as good as Redford’s last film, The Conspirator (2011), but it’s more likable and entertaining. The generally impeccable casting is a big help. (But what do people see in Brit Marling? She always seems out of her depth to me with seasoned actors.) The real surprise is LaBeouf, who carries off the second lead with seeming effortlessness, even to the point of pulling off his character’s evolving conscience. This isn’t a great picture, but it’s an unusually intelligent one — intelligence not being a highly-prized commodity in the movies these days. Rated R for language.
Starts Friday at Carolina Cinemas