The once young and vocal Vietnam War protestors from the ‘60 and ‘70s are ageing fast. Some settled down in the suburbs, some ‘sold out’ and entered respectable employment for the prospect of a pension, some fight on today, but all of them move noticeably slower and either reminisce or regret their actions from all those decades ago.
In The Company You Keep, an aged community of protestors from a group known as the Weather Underground living under assumed names and fictitious lives are catapulted back into the spotlight. Sharon Solarz (Susan Sarandon) turns herself in for a bank robbery gone bad 30 years ago where a guard was killed. This also ferrets out Jim Grant (Robert Redford) who was living contentedly as a single father in Albany with his 11-year-old daughter.
Now as a fugitive on the run from the FBI and cliché Special Agent Cornelius (Terrence Howard), Jim travels from old friend to old friend across the country looking for the one woman who can clear his name, Mimi Lurie (Julie Christie). Mimi is one of the rarities who never gave up the fight.
The man on the run chases through train stations and car parks come across as just going through the motions. These scenes are all standard issue generic tension building knock-offs from superior fugitive thrillers. Since our hero is no longer a young buck, there is the bare minimum of running and jumping, but the film is more cerebral than the physics of escaping on the lam. The screenplay by Lem Dobbs based on the novel by Neil Gordon actually has something to say.
As Jim runs into his the old members of his clique, they talk about past mistakes, the morality of employing violent protest tactics (what the FBI calls terrorism), and who ‘sold out’ or just plain ‘grew up’. Nick Nolte, Richard Jenkins, and Julie Christie all show up as old folks who used to have a cause. It is the young folks in the film who appear more vapid and are portrayed as a generation without a cause.
Young reporter Ben Shepard (Shia LaBeouf) is responsible for outing Jim Grant. He works at a small, failing newspaper and attempts to make a national name for himself at the expense of journalistic ethics, sources, and above all, the innocent. Shepard does not have too much time for the ground truth or the gray areas in between; he just wants a headline and more importantly, the byline.
The Company You Keep feels uneven as it weaves back and forth between the stale police procedural and juicier political discussions. Sarandon, Jenkins, and LaBeouf score the more intriguing bits of the screenplay while Redford, Howard, and Chris Cooper are saddled with the drier bits of cat and mouse.
Other bits of unevenness pop up from the screenplay as well. All the characters keep talking about the events 30 years ago but that math doesn’t add up; they were protesting the Vietnam War in the early ‘80s? A brief romantic sub-plot also springs up between Shepard and a law school student (Brit Marling) but it is more awkward than believable and seems to be a by-product of Shepard’s newfound confidence now that is out there making a name for himself.
Redford gives LaBeouf a few rambling speeches about journalistic integrity, but whether or not they take hold is anyone’s guess. There are some more standby platitudes about secrets that reminded me of Sneakers (1992) and its “Too Many Secrets” theme about government conspiracies, but those speeches are forgiven because of the film’s cast. It is completely saturated with talent – even in the very small role category. There are some odd casting choices including Brendan Gleeson with an American accent and Julie Christie’s role that seems destined for Jane Fonda.
While dodging the mediocre man on the run scenes yourself, see The Company You Keep for the interspersed and thoughtful narrative about government overreach and especially Sarandon’s longer monologue about whether or not she would do everything over again. I just wish there was more of the talk and less of the running.
Directed by: Robert Redford
Written by: Lem Dobbs, Neil Gordon
Starring: Robert Redford, Shia LaBeouf, Julie Christie, Susan Sarandon, Nick Nolte, Chris Cooper, Terrence Howard, Stanley Tucci, Richard Jenkins, Anna Kendrick, Brendan Gleeson, Brit Marling, Sam Elliott, Stephen Root, Jackie Evancho