THE COMPANY YOU KEEP– 4 STARS
I’m a little late to the party in finally seeing this movie a few months after its brief theatrical run and just a few weeks outside of its DVD/Blu-ray release, but had to share how impressed I was with The Company You Keep, the ninth directorial effort from Robert Redford. I’m finding the avenues of Video On-Demand (VOD) and other streaming sources as a convenient alternative way for making up missed opportunities to catch films on the big screen. The Company You Keep passed through a limited theatrical release here in the U.S. back in April after premiering at the Venice Film Festival last year. It hits DVD/Blu-ray shelves on August 13th. Late or not, I was impressed enough to give it the attention of a full review.
While he might not make movies at the one-every-year pace of fellow actors-turned-directors Clint Eastwood or Woody Allen, there’s no arguing Robert Redford’s talent and success as a filmmaker. His movies might not make the money of Eastwood’s or get the notoriety of Allen’s, but Redford consistently makes smart, calculated, and poignant passion projects every time out of the gate. I’ll admit to being a big fan of his work. I enjoy his entire resume, even his films that elicit yawns (The Horse Whisperer), eye rolls (The Legend of Bagger Vance), and eyebrow raises (Lions for Lambs).
His own good fortune of winning an Academy Award for Best Director on his first feature effort, 1980’s Ordinary People, is probably the reason he hasn’t earned another statue since, other than a Lifetime Achievement Oscar in 2002 for his combined work as an actor, director, philanthropist, and purveyor of independent film as the founder of the Sundance Institute and the Sundance Film Festival. I had the chance to review his 1994 Best Picture nominee Quiz Show last year for the Alphabet Film Club, which had the unenviable task of going up against Forrest Gump (the eventual winner), Pulp Fiction, and The Shawshank Redemption the same year. Had Quiz Show come out any other year, it would have been a serious contender or even a winner of the top prize.
For whatever reason over the last decade or so, viewership has declined for Redford’s films. In 2000, he had bright young talent that wanted to work with him in Matt Damon, Will Smith, and Charlize Theron for The Legend of Bagger Vance, but it only made back half of its budget. Despite the powerhouse lineup of Meryl Streep, Tom Cruise, and himself and a timely post-9/11 political agenda, 2007’s Lions for Lambs failed to take off with both critics and audiences. Three years later, his Lincoln assassination trial period piece, The Conspirator, a solid effort that garnered better reviews starring James McAvoy, Robin Wright, Kevin Kline, and Tom Wilkinson, is probably a movie you’ve never heard of, because of its short and limited theatrical run. If you get a chance, it’s on Netflix Instant Streaming and worth your time.
Despite his immense talent and stellar casts, Redford’s name doesn’t open films on reputation anymore to this younger generation who doesn’t remember the dashing man of his youth that their parents and grandparents idolized. Likely, a millennial’s answer is “Who is f–k is Robert Redford?” That has brought us to The Company You Keep. You would think a film with a cast that boasts Redford, Shia LeBeouf, Susan Sarandon, Terrance Howard, Julie Christie, Nick Nolte, Anna Kendrick, Chris Cooper, Stanley Tucci, Brit Marling, Brendan Gleeson, Richard Jenkins, and Sam Elliot would move a studio’s buzz meter enough to get a decent release and marketing push. That’s a group comprising 20 Academy Award nominations and 5 Oscar wins. That was not so. As I mentioned earlier, The Company You Keep spent very little time in theaters and has only grossed just over $5 million.
The Company You Keep opens with a montage describing the history of the real-life “Weather Underground” leftist movement during the Vietnam War. With their peers dying overseas at an alarming rate and more friends being drafted to join them, the radical members of the Weather Underground, called Weathermen and founded on the campus of the University of Michigan, moved passed peaceful anti-war demonstrations in the late 1960’s and into the 1970’s. They evolved into a full-blown secret group with the goal to overthrow the U.S. Government with extreme vandalism, riots, and even bombings. That was years ago and those people (you’ve probably heard of Bill Ayers) have reintegrated themselves peacefully back into society, leaving their radical ways behind. The movie fictionally outlines a few Weathermen wanted by the FBI that were never caught and tried for a 1980 Michigan bank robbery that got a security guard killed. They have changed their names and have been hiding for over 30 years.
When one of those former Weathermen, Sharon Solarz (Sarandon), caves to the repressed guilt of her former actions, she allows herself to be caught and arrested. The lead FBI agent on the case (Howard) feels like this is an opportunity to catch the others involved in that robbery. At the same time, an ambitious Albany newspaper reporter, Ben Shepard (LeBeouf), sees the chance to make a name for himself and convinces his boss (Tucci) to allow him to do some digging and score a big story. With a tip from an old college girlfriend on the FBI team (Kendrick), he shakes the tree to find a few local names and associates of Solarz.
One of those names he comes upon is Jim Grant (Redford), a recent widower and single-father Albany attorney. Grant turned down a request from one of Solarz’s friends (Stephen Root) to represent her and her case. This gets followed up on by Shepard who does more shady digging to find that squeaky-clean Grant is actually Nick Sloan, one of Solarz’s other wanted Weather Underground partners from that old robbery/murder. As a professional at hiding his identity, Grant leaves his daughter with his younger brother (Cooper) and goes on the run from the FBI manhunt.
Instead of running for the border, Grant/Sloan begins catching up to old Weather Underground contacts (Nolte and Jenkins) in Milwaukee and Chicago in an effort to call on favors and seek out the last wanted perpetrator from that fateful day, Mimi Lurie (Christie), a former lover of his who has spent her stalwart years hiding in California and still being positive to the cause. As Shepard interviews Solarz herself and follows more clues in Michigan, he sees Sloan more as a man trying to clear his name rather than run away.
The Company You Keep is an impressive political and journalism thriller that keeps its story at an approachable and realistic level without evolving into wild disbelief like so many other fictional films in this genre. Too often in political or journalism-based potboilers, the screenwriters fall in love with shock value. They realize they have a dialogue-driven movie with not much action and worry that it won’t sell tickets. They feel like that have to grab the audience with ridiculous jaw-dropping twists that end up being too over-the-top or out-of-character for the story they are trying to tell. Unlike the stellar renaissance of tension-building, politically-charged films from the 1970’s like All the President’s Men, today’s efforts of political thrillers come off looking more like a cockamamie episode of 24. Take a look at this list of the best political thrillers of the 2000’s. All of them are good to great but, in some way shape or form, take some part of their story too far.
The Company You Keep doesn’t make those mistakes. It doesn’t cave to gunfights or overreaching depths of dumb plot twists. Unlike movies that overstep their scale, the President isn’t in on the cover-up or embroiled in some assassination plot. This is a movie about a close-knit group of radicals who have grown up and changed, but have to face their old actions when exposed. The film has its share of secrets to tell, but drops them at its own diligent pace and without musical stingers and audience gasps. It relishes an intimate movie story line that evolves to a tipping point without manufactured drama and tension. It is comfortable with the seesaw between righteous journalism clashing with righteous activism.
The cast, as you can tell, is extraordinary. Redford is the focal point as the man on the run and the protagonist we’re not sure we know everything about, but Shia LeBeouf really asserts himself as the real pusher of the story. It’s probably the most calculated and restrained I’ve seen him. The kid can really use his charm and acting well when he’s not being chased by dumb giant robots. He goes blow-for-blow with all of the heavy hitters in front of him, especially in an interview scene with Sarandon. Around those two leads are stellar supporting performances from the whole roster. From Stanley Tucci’s no-nonsense editor to Richard Jenkins’s worry-wart reformed professor in particular, every name actor nails their little scenes when they are called upon. Not one performer overacts to ruin the moment for the sake of those aforementioned mistakes. No one blusters or monologues trying to make something bigger than it is.
Sure, other movies might have more thrills, chills, and spills than The Company You Keep. Sure, other movies more poignantly portray the youthful malaise and conflict from the anti-war efforts of 40 years ago. I’m also sure there’s a better in-the-moment movie that could be made about the Weather Underground. The Company You Keep wasn’t out to be any of those things. If you want decadent escapism, you’re going to have to seek out a different and louder movie. Redford was purposeful when portraying how that “hippy” generation feels today as reformed adults, using a singular story told between first-person experience and a reporter’s interpretation. Simply put, this is a big kids’ movie. This isn’t for the instant gratification crowd that needs White House Down or Olympus Has Fallen to be their so-called political thrillers. I will gladly take a thought-provoking and deftly intriguing film like The Company You Keep anytime compared to that crap.
LESSON #1: THE GRIEF CAUSED BY OLD SECRETS— As evident with the opening arrest of Sharon Solarz that starts the film, old secrets eat away at a person over time. The more damning or painful the secret, the heavier the grief. For as much as Sarandon’s character goes on to say later that she doesn’t regret her past actions and would do them again, the weight of taking responsibility for what she knew she did still overcame her.
LESSON #2: THE SEESAW BETWEEN THE GOOD AND BAD EFFECTS OF INVESTIGATIVE JOURNALISM— Freedom of the press is one of the protected rights of speech and expression from the First Amendment as part of the Bill of Rights to the U.S. Constitution. Journalism is supposed to be the search for the truth and the fair reporting of the facts. The slippery slope to that two way street that eager Mr. Shepard learns is that the truth can have good and bad effects. The good ones are that the truth comes out, clearing names, righting wrongs, and informing the public. The bad version is that the truth can create collateral damage that can hurt innocent people peripheral to the truth. A good journalist learns to keep both of these effects in mind.
LESSON #3: HOW YOUR YOUTHFUL PERSPECTIVE CHANGES WHEN YOU BECOME A PARENT— By rooting this story with allusions to the real-life Weather Underground, Redford and company examines how that movement and mindset has evolved in the last 30-40 years. Those passionate youth of then have become successful adults and parents now. Most have matured and integrated themselves back into society after a turbulent time period of distrust, hate, and intolerance. While more can likely be examined elsewhere as to how those people have evolved with the modern times, this film points to parenthood as the most effective catalyst for change. Once these characters grew up and became parents, not only did they acquire new responsibility, but maybe even saw the errors of their youthful disposition. Every generation goes through this. For as much as my generation will remember 9/11’s effects, the generation after me will view that differently and have something else to spark their unrest and disagreement.