Robert Redford is back, as producer, director and star of The Company You Keep, and he must keep his talent preserved in a drawer with his old socks, because in the noxious ozone of today’s films, he adds some genuine class and intelligence to the amateurishness around us. A firm believer that big-screen entertainment can also serve as a vehicle for social and political issues, he proves his point with a thriller as riveting as it is controversial.
One of the rare contemporary films that really is about something, The Company You Keep mixes identity, action and politics to tell a gripping story about what happened to those 1970s antiwar protestors called the Weather Underground (labeled Weathermen by the press) who turned into radical terrorists by blowing up government buildings. They broke laws, endangered lives, fled from prosecution, went into hiding and reinvented themselves. And they are still around, wanted by the FBI, living normal lives under assumed names. News stories occasionally surface in which one of them is nailed in some secret small-town hideaway and brought to justice. But this is not only a story about 13 Weathermen who killed a security guard in a botched Michigan bank robbery 30 years ago. It is also about one member of the accused who wasn’t even present that day, a solid citizen who is forced to go underground again to prove his innocence. In a role tailored to fit his integrity and liberal conscience, Mr. Redford has never been better.
The story begins when a former Weatherman involved in the robbery (Susan Sarandon)—hiding out as a Vermont housewife but on her way at last to surrender to the FBI—gets recognized from a Most Wanted poster and arrested at a New York gas station while filling up her car. Mr. Redford plays another former radical now living as a respected Albany civil rights attorney and single father under the alias James Grant, who refuses to take her case and in doing so arouses the suspicions of ambitious, muckraking Albany reporter Ben Shepard (Shia LaBeouf). Smelling a scoop in the competitive and endangered profession of dwindling newspapers, the aggressive rookie journalist persuades his editor (Stanley Tucci) to let him pursue his hunches, tracks down a college friend (Anna Kendrick) who works for the FBI and discovers that there is no record of lawyer Grant prior to 1979. Hell-bent on beating the authorities to the punch, Ben’s private sleuthing reveals Grant’s true identity to be Nick Sloan, a former colleague of the Vermont soccer mom who is also sought for the Michigan bank heist. Before Ben breaks the story wide open, the Grant/Sloan character leaves his 11-year-old daughter (played by three-octave-singing phenomenon Jackie Evancho, discovered on America’s Got Talent) with his brother (Chris Cooper) and goes on the run. His fact-finding mission to clear his name, with the ruthless reporter in hot pursuit, leads him across the U.S. searching for the whereabouts of the only person who can help him: an ex-girlfriend (Julie Christie) who disappeared years ago to the beaches of Big Sur with a new lover (Sam Elliott). Now his goal is to locate her, rekindle an old loyalty and convince her to give herself up in order to save him and ensure his daughter’s future. Mr. Redford’s quest through the detritus of his mysterious past—encountering a veteran cast of links along the way that includes Nick Nolte, Brendan Gleeson, Terrence Howard and Richard Jenkins—gives the film a compelling thrust of power and suspense. It will leave you breathless.
Adapted from the novel by Neil Gordon, the brilliant screenplay by Lem Dobbs illuminates the plight of the cub reporter in a new age of journalism, updates the latest tracking strategies of the FBI and, in one affecting prison interview between Mr. LaBeouf and Ms. Sarandon, offers some earnest insight into the validity of the noble but misdirected romantic idealism of the ’70s radicals. From archival footage of actual TV news coverage of the Weathermen’s attacks, to a dazzling display of perfect performances, to the complex emotional relationships that result in guilt by association, the disparate elements in The Company You Keep are robustly collated by the keen, well-crafted direction of a master filmmaker at the top of his form. It’s only April, but this is one of the best films of 2013.
THE COMPANY YOU KEEP
Running Time 125 minutes
Written by Lem Dobbs (screenplay) and Neil Gordon (novel)
Directed by Robert Redford
Starring Robert Redford, Shia LeBeouf and Julie Christie