“Somebody somewhere knows something. And somebody’s going to talk.”
At the age of 76 many might consider The Company You Keep as a kind of swansong for Hollywood’s original pretty boy, Robert Redford. It has all of the earmarks of a grand finale. Redford plays the star role and directs the film as well. It plays out like a message film with the grace of not overplaying its hand. And so, while the film brings up the activists morality of Vietnam-era America, it never becomes preachy or too obvious. In almost every sense of the word this is about as picture-perfect a goodbye as Redford might have asked for.
Except for two things. First of all, this is not anywhere near Redford’s last stand. He’s already booked for the next Captain America movie, and I don’t expect he’ll be riding off into the sunset anytime soon after. If he’s lucky, he’ll take the Clint Eastwood road to retirement by carefully choosing his projects and spending more time behind the camera than he does front and center. The second issue has to do with that supposed picture-perfect description I might have alluded to earlier. Redford is absolutely wonderful in this movie, to be sure. He shows a springy step that belies his age. The film itself, however, is seriously flawed.
As the film opens we see Sharon Solarz (Sarandon) saying goodbye to her husband and children as they go off to work and school. It appears to be quite an ordinary occurrence. But this is not an ordinary day. Sharon is about to be arrested for a 30-year-old crime. She was a part of the infamous Weather Underground, a militant break-off of the Students For A Democratic Society who decided that peaceful demonstrations just weren’t working. A small group of Weather Underground members robbed a bank in which a guard was killed. They’ve done a pretty incredible job of staying hidden, developing an impressive underground network for support and communication. Of course, by now they’ve been living new lives under assumed names. Their families don’t even know who they are.
Enter small-town lawyer Jim Grant (Redford). He’s a single father of a young girl and has lived a rather quiet life since the days of the Weather Underground. Sharon’s arrest has sent the wires buzzing and brought up too many bad memories. He knows it’s only a matter of time before his own identity is discovered and moves quickly to disappear. Meanwhile Ben Shepard (LaBeouf) smells a bigger story when he hears that Grant was approached to defend Sharon and turned the case down. When Grant disappears, he follows the clues and discovers that Grant might not be running away at all. He might be trying to track down the one person who could give him his life back.
“Innocence will only get you so far.”
Redford directs a pretty impressive cast in a movie that has a rather nice flow and ebb. Unfortunately, you don’t have to dig too deeply to find that the film itself begins to unravel like the pieces of this 30-year-old story. While Redford does indeed deliver in his performance, he still looks very much like a man in his 70’s. We are expected to buy that not only does he have a daughter under ten years (possible) but that he was in his 20’s in 1969. Or are we intended to believe he was a 40-year-old activist among these college students. Then there’s Shia LaBeouf. He’s admittedly better here than I’ve seen him before. But he’s trying too hard to channel the iconic role that Redford himself played in All The President’s Men. He may pull off looking and acting like a young Bob Woodward, but this is hardly the kind of material that could bring down a presidential administration. LaBeouf plays it bigger than it is and finds himself in an awkward and anti-climactic situation before it’s done. Sure, Redford does his best both in front of and behind the camera to make this the huge moment everyone wishes it were. Unfortunately, the grand scale never materializes, and we’re left with only a short bittersweet moment that is more disappointing than the buildup requires. The film meanders too much and takes a lot of time getting to the point.
The cast is stellar to be sure. Susan Sarandon doesn’t get the chance to preach as much as she often does in this kind of film. Her character might be the driving force behind the movie’s events, but she is reduced to merely an extended cameo. Perhaps it’s a requirement in a leftist movie. Julie Christie also has what amounts to an extended cameo, although one with much more heart than message. She has quite a nice emotional chemistry with Redford for such a short time together on the screen. There are other appearances by some welcome faces. Nick Nolte shows up along with Richard Jenkins, Terrance Howard, Sam Elliott and the always great Stanley Tucci. The famous faces almost amount to a distracting game of treasure hunt. Obviously, Redford’s reputation brings out a considerable amount of talent wishing to be associated with his legacy.
If the film isn’t as impressive as we all hoped, it does give Redford a chance to show us that he still has the chops. His direction might not be inspiring, but it’s solid as far as the technicality of the presentation is concerned. He’s likely absorbed more industry know-how than most actors or directors can ever hope to possess. He might have gotten by on his looks for a long time. It’s good to see some acknowledgement that he earned every second of it. Then there’s this generation of “pretty boy”, Shia LaBeouf, playing a wide-eyed reporter. “That pretty much explains why journalism is dead.”