A film review by Craig J. Koban June 5, 2013


2013, PG-13, 112 mins.


Robert Redford as Jim Grant  /  Shia LaBeouf as Ben Shepard  /  Julie Christie as Mimi Lurie  /  Anna Kendrick as Diana  /  Stanley Tucci as Ray Fuller  /  Sam Elliott as Mac McLeod  /  Susan Sarandon as Sharon Solarz

Directed by Robert Redford  /  Written by Lem Dobbs  /  Based on the book by Neil Gordon

The irony of Robert Redford's THE COMPANY YOU KEEP is pretty apparent the longer you sit through it.  

Redford played the industrious and intrepid reporter Bob Woodward in 1976’s ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN and now he stars and directs himself playing a fugitive from the law and press in THE COMPANY YOU KEEP.  A ripe old 76-years-old, Redford has aged rather naturally and still looks great, not to mention that he crafts a political thriller – based on a 2003 novel of the same name by Neil Gordon – that’s punctuated by finely understated direction, a smorgasbord of strong performances, and a labyrinthine script that contains intriguing themes about hippy radicals of the Vietnam era committed to overthrowing the powers that be via any violent means necessary.  The fact that Redford manages to keep the film’s dense storytelling afloat, accessible, and relatable makes the film all the more engaging. 

The radicals in question were the Weather Underground, who operated during the socially and politically sensitive 1960’s in a large-scale effort to deal what they believed at the time to be an ultra-corrupt U.S. Government.  After a brief prologue with news and media footage of the past that taps into this group’s fiery zeitgeist, the film flashes forwards to the present day, where mother and wife Sharon (Susan Sarandon) prepares for what seems like a normal day...that ends badly.  She is arrested for a 40-year-old murder of a bank guard that occurred while she was a member of the Weather Underground.  Predictably, news of her capture by the F.B.I. catches the interest of her fellow and long-since-estranged Underground members, one of which includes an Albany lawyer named Jim Grant (Redford), who for decades has lived a quiet family life and now tends to the needs of his recently motherless child (Jackie Evancho).   



Compellingly, Jim’s dicey past is not really revealed early in the film, as it takes an ever inquisitive Albany Sun Times journalist, Ben Shehard (Shia LaBeouf) to find out – as the audience does – the secrets that Jim truly harbors about his time with the radical anti-Vietnam/government group.  When Jim’s identity is revealed to the media world, he desperately goes on the run and into hiding, leaving his daughter with his brother (Chris Cooper).  As Jim seeks refuge with an old Underground buddy, Donald (Nick Nolte), a determined manhunt is underway to capture him, lead by Agent Cornelius (Terrance Howard).  As Jim eludes capture, he hooks back up with his ex-lover, Mimi (Julie Christie) and begins to ponder his past actions and misdeeds with not only her, but also with the rest of his former militants.  While this is occurring, Ben continues with his own one-man-army investigation – using methods that could be deemed questionable – to make even more discoveries that  make him change his whole perception of Jim and his involvement in the bank murder all those years ago. 

Redford, if anything, is a veteran enough presence both in front of and behind the camera to generate pervasively invigorating performances from his astonishingly well-assembled cast.  The sublime pleasure derived from the film is seeing grade-A caliber actors like Sarandon, Nolte, Cooper, Christie, Howard, Richard Jenkins (who shows up as a former radical turned University Professor), and, yes, Redford work off of each other with such precision and timing.  Shia LaBeouf has the honor of playing opposite many of these esteemed players as well, and her certainly holds his own in his tricky role of the investigative reporter whose youthful ambition, pluck and desire for the truth is often matched by his own unscrupulous tactics.  One of the great low-key themes of THE COMPANY YOU KEEP is the slow death spiral of print media and how people who work tirelessly in it are forced – sometimes against their better ethics – to do what’s required to get a story and beat the online competition to it.  Ben is a real focal point of interest here, mostly because he’s not entirely a likeable crusader or a wholeheartedly corrupt journalist, but occupies a more enticingly involving middle ground between the two. 

Redford, with his rock steady and casual visual style and command of the performances, never loses track of the human-interest story at the heart of the film’s polarizing political angst.  The film has great interest in investigating these former Underground radicals and how youthful idealism gave way to increasingly violent protest.  Even more revealing is how the script shows many of them trying to forget and abandon their questionable pasts and instead forge ahead as responsible adult leaders in the present.  Some have, regrettably, never let go.  One of the film’s most chilling scenes has the idealistic Ben interviewing the captured Sharon, whom at one point matter-of-factly informs the reporter that she would do it all again in a heartbeat if necessary.  Then there are other noteworthy scenes of intrigue, especially ones late in the narrative where Redford and Christie’s characters verbally engaging in fascinating conversations about whether the ends really justified the means all those years ago.   

I not really sure that THE COMPANY YOU KEEP is ultimately concerned with being a dry and longwinded history lesson, nor is it directly admonishing or applauding the Weather Underground militants.   The root the film takes is almost more melancholic as it simply observes – without definitive commentary - how people that were once caught up in highly debatable social/political causes are now trying to adjust, adapt, and immerse themselves in a modern society that once – and perhaps still does – contained a government that they felt committed hellish atrocities.  These are not simple and easily digested and dissected themes, and Redford is shrewd enough to honor the endless complexities and contradictions that typify his characters.  It's such a highly rare thing when a political potboiler like this absconds away from mindless and repetitive action and instead respects the intelligence of mature audiences that crave for old school thrillers built on dialogue, character dynamics, and slick scripting. 

Not all of THE COMPANY YOU KEEP is air tight, though.  Redford may be an ageless presence on screen, but it is a bit distracting to see him pushing 80 and appearing as a plausible father to an 11-year-old.  Then there is the manner that Ben is able to perhaps be too many convenient steps ahead of the vast and omnipresent powers of the F.B.I. throughout the story.  That, and Ben occupies an essentially inconsequential romantic subplot with a young college woman (Brit Marling, a refined actress that deserves a better role than the one here) that may or may not have direct ties with the perpetrators of the past bank robbery.  Yet, despite these quibbles, THE COMPANY YOU KEEP is an assured and confident return to directorial form for Redford after squandered efforts like THE CONSPIRATOR and just-okay ones like LIONS FOR LAMBS.  He demonstrates a command and understanding of the dense and convoluted material here and projects it with a gripping clarity that never makes us feel like we need a road map to make sense of it all.  

He’s still got it. 

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