Directed by: Robert Redford
Premise: A former member of The Weather Underground (Robert Redford), a 1970s domestic terrorist group, is exposed by a journalist (Shia LaBeouf) and goes on the run.
What Works: The Company You Keep is a compelling thriller. Like a lot of fugitive-on-the-lam movies, the story runs on two simultaneous tracks: the escape of the fugitive and the investigation of his pursuer. The filmmakers of The Company You Keep balance between those tracks very well, unveiling twists and turns in the backstory alternately with scenes of the fugitive evading capture. The movie is at its best when the fugitive, played by Robert Redford, reconnects with his former allies. These people have gone on with their lives, some with a record and others under an alias, and the scenes of these sixty-year-old characters recollecting their youth have a lot of complexity. Their reunions are not always sweet. In fact these former allies are often quite sour with each other and the writing and acting of these scenes is superb. There are several reunions in the film and the picture risks becoming repetitive but the filmmakers take a different approach with each character, and they each contribute a different perspective. Nick Nolte plays a radical turned small business owner, and the irony of a former leftist now succeeding as a capitalist is played subtly but smartly. Richard Jenkins is cast as an academic who has given up the radical struggles of his youth but waxes poetic about it in lecture halls as a college professor. His sequences with Redford are the highlight of The Company You Keep. Their reunion is prickly but there is also a sadness to their conversations as the two men ponder the errors of their youth. Redford also meets with his former flame, played by Julie Christie, whose character is still fighting the system and carrying on as a fugitive. The actress does not appear until late into the movie but the confrontation between her and Redford’s character nicely tops off these series of reunions by emphasizing the themes of integrity and personal responsibility. The Company You Keep also has a very chilling supporting performance by Susan Sarandon as an unrepentant former bomber. Her interview with Shia LaBeouf’s reporter succeeds in explaining to the audience what these people believed they were fighting for and dramatizing the false veneer of righteousness that terrorists often use as a shield and a recruitment tool.
What Doesn’t: Although The Weather Underground was a real organization, The Company You Keep is a fictional story and so viewers should not mistake this for a dramatization of real people or events. Like many of Robert Redford’s recent films, The Company You Keep is intended to be a polemic but as that it is only partly successful. The problem with Redford’s recent films, namely Lions for Lambs, is that the storytelling is overwhelmed by the politics. Redford’s previous effort, The Conspirator, was far more successful because it allowed its political points to emerge organically out of the drama. The Company You Keep exists somewhere between these two films. The political perspective of this film is too vague. The mystery unraveled by Shia LaBeouf’s character does pose an ethical dilemma but not the kind of dilemma that this story requires. Similarly, Redford’s journey does not come to a conclusion that forces a confrontation with his past. The movie lacks thematic or narrative coherence and so it plays like a collection of scenes that aren’t unified.
Bottom Line: The Company You Keep works as a thriller but the moviemakers fall short of their political aspirations. There are some very strong performances in it but viewers who want to learn something about The Weather Underground should seek out the 2002 documentary instead.
Episode: #438 (April 12, 2012)