Hollywood icon and filmmaking legend Robert Redford gets right down to the real nitty-gritty as a roaring liberal lion on the run in the stilted political thriller ‘The Company You Keep’. Based on the 2003 Neil Gordon novel of the same name, Redford’s big screen adaptation wants to shrewdly delve into the radicalism involving aging anti-government extremists from the late 60s whose questionable activities led them to go underground before reappearing while harboring no regrets for their past law-breaking dalliances.
Redford (‘The Conspirator’, ‘Lions For Lambs’, ‘All The President’s Men’, ‘The Candidate’) is no stranger to political causes both personally or professionally. Cinematically, ‘The Company You Keep’ allows Redford the continuation to explore fictional politico-oriented intrigue with a skeptical eye. Interestingly, the ‘Company’ director has assembled an established assortment of who’s who in veteran big screen manpower to convey the so-called idealistic realm of counter-culture defiance and expose an opportunistic and authoritative establishment for their nostalgic naughtiness in misguided practices, policies and procedures.
Whatever is your political preference or ideology at hand, ‘The Company You Keep’ basically stumbles as a saggy and unambitious reactionary drama that glosses over the sins of yesteryear — for both anti-war activists and governmental conservative watch dogs alike. Redford settles for the formulaic ‘misunderstood-man-on-the-lam’ premise in the name of lingering political prosecution but the film never fully embraces the underlying cynicism of the big picture pertaining to 60s disillusionment and distrust. ‘Company’ staggers about a conscientious crowd of baby boomer cynics and the paranoia that exists for their psychological stances. Unfortunately, Redford’s narrative is a perfunctory platform that misses the golden opportunity to point the fingers sternly at the Vietnam-era madness or the unethical and unfinished business of those turbulent times.
Oddly, ‘The Company You Keep’ is devoid of any genuine suspense, excitement or considerable action-oriented finesse. Screenwriter Len Dobbs (‘The Limey’, ‘Haywire’) does not seem to pack much of a punch with a vintage mystery piece that features drab straight-laced dialogue, flat performances and an inquisitive feature that feebly raises more questions than what it can actually answer. The unevenness of journalistic probing, misplaced political activism and policing indifference all makes for an elaborate depiction of a disjointed puzzle.
The film focuses on the histrionics of The Weather Underground aka The Weathermen, a determined collection of extreme leftists formed in 1969 that existed until the mid-70’s. At first clinging to the mantra of non-violence, The Weathermen soon found that their lost voices could be heard much louder by engaging in a series of federal building and bank bombings. In particular, an early 80s Brinks truck robbery was a critical incident involving The Weathermen where upon a security guard and two police officers were killed.
In the corruptible Weather Underground spotlight is Sharon Solarz (Oscar-winner Susan Sarandon from ‘Dead Man Walking’) who is charged with the horrific truck robbery killings by the local FBI. Her nabbing by the authorities spells trouble for nearby widowed lawyer Jim Grant (Robert Redford) located in upstate New York. Feeling the heat, Grant must ditch his adorable eleven year-old daughter with his brother (Oscar-winner Chris Cooper from ‘Adaptation’) as he suddenly finds himself on the run. Somehow, Grant — while fleeing the law — must clear his name as he looks to uncover the actual culprits that caused the deaths of the victims connected to the protest crimes from decades gone by.
In the meanwhile, an eager and intrepid young reporter Ben Shepard (Shia LaBeouf) wants to get to the bottom of the truth as he looks to track down the ducking-and-dodging antics of Grant as he hits the trail with noted conviction. Among the other hippie oldsters corralled to opine on the past and present philosophical outlook of their weary psyches is laid back stock trader Sam Elliott (‘Up In The Air’, ‘Hulk’, ‘We Were Soldiers’) as well as burnt-out protestors in former Oscar-nominees Richard Jenkins (‘The Visitor’) and Nick Nolte (‘The Prince Of Tides’). Oscar-winner Julie Christie (‘Darling’) is the other Weathermen femme fatale in the mix besides Sarandon’s imprisoned Sharon Solarz.
It is such a shame that ‘The Company You Keep’ is a lagging exploration regarding the themes of visiting one’s ghosts from the past. Redford opts to spearhead a toothless political chase-em’-down fable without giving the audience any concrete fodder to hold onto involving the motivations and manipulations behind the terrorist tendencies of the protagonists’ disenchantment.’
Sure, the radical-driven behavior was provoked by the pessimistic pressures of a Big Brother-societal stronghold in the narrow-minded perception of late 60s intolerance. However, where is the film’s attempt to explain the disdain that fueled the anti-establishment basis for criminal mayhem? Is there any regret on the behalf of Grant and his rabble-rousing colleagues for the murders in the name of their brand of defined justice? Better yet, why does the movie not produce a proper defense for why these old-time radicals were forced to carry out such harsh acts to get their political viewpoints across? Why is there no intensified guilt or hesitation when leaving behind loved ones in the instant chance to flee in the spur of the moment? Why doesn’t the film focus on their conformity nowadays in comparison to the hypercritical way they shunned conformity back in the heyday of their hippie-minded enlightenment?
The only revelation worth acknowledging in ‘The Company You Keep’ is how Redford and some of his fellow acting relics in Nolte, Elliott, Cooper and Jenkins still have the charismatic chops to display before the cameras despite the brittle bones and receding gray hairlines. Matured movie mavens Sarandon and Christie still have feminine vivaciousness that radiate in their advanced siren stages of womanhood. It is too bad that the tepid material squanders what impact these heavy hitters could have demonstrated if the political heft of the messaging was more substantial, coherent and thought-provoking.
As the young aggressive link fastening the generation gap in a bond of whodunit amongst these senior fugitives, LaBeouf’s go-getting reporter Ben seems quite irritating as an up-to-date rip-off of Redford’s ‘All the President’s Men’ crusading news investigator. The fact that Ben’s investigative methods appear antiquated in the age of millennium-touted social media is one of the film’s puzzling and laughable footnotes.
The ‘Company’ that Redford and his celebrated cronies keep is refreshing from the standpoint of how fine wine can age better with time. But as far as stimulating political pot-boilers are concerned it is time for these rocking chair radicals to surrender altogether.
The Company You Keep (2013)
Sony Pictures Classics
2 hrs. 5 mins.
Starring: Robert Redford, Shia LaBeouf, Susan Sarandon, Nick Nolte, Julie Christie, Chris Cooper, Richard Jenkins, Brendan Gleeson, Brit Marling, Stanley Tucci and Sam Elliott
Directed by: Robert Redford
MPAA Rating: R
Genre: Mystery & Suspense/Political Thriller
Critic’s rating: ** stars (out of 4 stars)