A seam of melancholy runs through “The Company You Keep,” Robert Redford’s reflective melodrama about political idealism run amok and the wages of youthful folly.
3 (out of five stars)Director: Robert RedfordCast: Robert Redford, Shia LaBeouf, Nick Nolte, Stanley Tucci, Julie Christie, Susan Sarandon, Anna Kendrick, Terrence Howard, Sam Elliott, Brendan GleesonRated: R for strong languageRunning time: 2 hours, 5 minutes
For audiences older than 50, in particular, this fictional story of homegrown terrorists sprung from the 1960s counterculture should conjure complicated feelings of pride, shame, anger and regret.
But along with those emotions, this earnest, well-intentioned movie elicits frustration that its story had to be packaged as a conventional, not very suspenseful fugitive thriller with a bogus Hollywood ending. Sidney Lumet’s 1988 film, “Running on Empty,” which addresses the same subject, is much more truthful and compelling.
“The Company You Keep” has its moments, though. The aging but still beautiful faces of its stars — especially those of Redford, Julie Christie and Susan Sarandon — convey an aura of tragic nobility. They portray former members of the Weather Underground, which plotted to blow up buildings in U.S. cities.
Lem Dobbs’ clunky screenplay, adapted from Neil Gordon’s novel, maintains a scrupulously ethical balance in contemplating domestic terrorism, and the film gives the angriest of these left-wing radicals their say. If their rage has moderated, their basic feelings haven’t changed.
A moment of reckoning arrives three decades after a Michigan bank robbery during which a security guard (an off-duty police officer) was killed by group members who disappeared after the crime. One inspiration may have been the actual robbery of a Brinks armored car in 1981 in Nanuet, N.Y., in which three people, including two police officers, were killed.
The focal character, Jim Grant (Redford), is a recently widowed public interest lawyer and solid citizen raising an 11-year-old daughter in a suburb of Albany. Jim, the movie’s moral fulcrum, is forced to confront the past when Sharon Solarz (Sarandon) turns herself in to the FBI for violence committed years earlier. Sarandon, whose Bette Davis eyes still burn, gives the film’s fiercest performance as a woman inflamed by a sense of injustice. She says she would do it all again “if I didn’t have kids and old parents that I love.”
On the run and narrowly avoiding arrest by the FBI, Jim is also desperately trying to contact his former lover, Mimi Lurie (Christie), who participated in the bank robbery, to testify that he wasn’t there. Terrence Howard, giving a clumsy performance in an underwritten role, plays the Javert-like FBI field officer leading the hunt.
Among the movie’s several pursuers, Ben Shepard (Shia LaBeouf), an ambitious young reporter for an Albany newspaper, is the most persistent. With his job on the line, he ferrets out that Jim is actually Nick Sloan, a former Weather Underground member who adopted his new identity in 1979.
Ben, far from being a dedicated seeker of truth and justice, is a smug, arrogant manipulator who exploits his connection with Diana (the underused Anna Kendrick), a college hookup who now works for the FBI, to gain privileged information. Against the orders of his demanding editor (Stanley Tucci), he travels to Ann Arbor, Mich., to interview the retired police officer (Brendan Gleeson) who led the investigation of the original robbery.
“The Company You Keep” is not kind to the ailing newspaper business. If Ben is meant to represent a quintessential bright young journalist, LaBeouf makes him an obnoxious, unscrupulous troublemaker out for personal glory.
Jim’s cat-and-mouse game with the FBI after his true identity is revealed lacks visceral momentum, partly because of Redford’s diminished agility in his mid-70s and partly because the chases are staged so lackadaisically. Along the way, he deposits his daughter at the New York apartment of his sympathetic brother, Daniel (Chris Cooper).
Seeking news of Mimi’s whereabouts, he visits other former activists, including Billy (Stephen Root), who is now a hippie organic farmer; Donal (Nick Nolte), who owns a lumberyard; and Jed (Richard Jenkins, excellent as ever), a pacifist college professor whose resentment of those who embraced violence still simmers.
When Mimi finally appears, she delivers a searing tirade that reveals her rage to be undiminished. Gazing at Christie, who is still radiant at 71, stirs up complicated feelings: Her feisty Mimi, a pot dealer who lives off the grid with her partner (Sam Elliott), is no meltingly empathic dream girl, but men of a certain age may fall in love with her all over again.
The movie made me wonder why there isn’t a contemporary equivalent to the widespread radicalism of the 1960s and ’70s.
I think it may have to do with the information explosion, which has taught us that the balance of good and evil is pretty much the same everywhere, and that violence only begets more violence.
Jim didn’t get tired of the movement, he insists at one point, saying simply, “I grew up.”