Silver Screen: The Company You Keep *1/2
Hollywood has done plenty of pontificating about the origins and aftermath of the 1960s leftist movement. Probably the most famous cinematic summation of the hippie revolution is Easy Rider’s stark declaration, “We blew it,” although sentiments range from “the Cubans and the mafia and the CIA blew it for us” (JFK) to “It blew” (Helter Skelter).
Nearly a half century after the Summer of Love, Robert Redford offers his reflections on the antiwar movement with The Company You Keep. Redford doesn’t find any answers blowing in the wind, although he lets the wind blow on and on and on. Hindsight hasn’t necessarily led to any insight here, and the ultimate effect is something like sitting next to a chatty old hippie on a long Greyhound bus ride.
Redford himself stars as Jim Grant, an older single father living in upstate New York who runs a private law practice specializing in pro-bono work and social justice. But before he was Jim Grant, he was Nick Sloan, a member of the radical left-wing group the Weather Underground. Following a botched bank heist that left a security guard dead, the various members broke off and assumed new identities.
The recent arrest of a former Weatherman (Susan Sarandon) has reignited interest in the old case, and a scrappy journalist (Shia LaBeouf) discovers Jim Grant’s secret past, which sets Grant on a largely uneventful cross-country journey to find the one person who can reveal the truth about his involvement.
The Company You Keep spends three-quarters of its bloated two-plus-hour running time chasing after a single secret that, when revealed, turns out not to be terribly interesting. What’s worse is that on its way there, The Company You Keep moves from episode to episode without uncovering a single noteworthy sequence or memorable character. Nick Nolte, Richard Jenkins, Stephen Root, Brendan Gleeson, and Sam Elliot all turn up in small roles that are distinguished only by the familiar actors who play them. Their dialogue could be easily interchanged, like a Mad Lib, and still cause no confusion, with everyone offering their own version of, “Things were different then, people don’t remember, et cetera.” (Sample line of dialogue: “I’ll turn myself in the same day the politicians and the corporations turn themselves in.”)
Presumably-- and understandably-- these actors, as well as Chris Cooper, Brit Marling, Anna Kendrick, Terrence Howard as a generic FBI agent, and Stanley Tucci as a generic newspaper editor, just wanted to work with Redford; there’s no other justification for casting such high-profile performers in the blandest of bit parts. Only Sarandon and Julie Christie manage to make any headway with what turn out to be the movie’s strongest scenes, by default. The Shia LaBeouf factor is an impediment as well. Here, as in every LaBeouf movie, there is a scene where he frantically tries to convince someone to talk to him even though they recoil at the idea, and it’s always believable.
Redford is still a screen presence to be reckoned with. Even in a movie this slight and sedate he quietly commands attention. It’s a reminder why he’s the icon the above-mentioned performers are so eager to work with. His very real talent as a director, as evidenced in 1994’s Quiz Show, seems to diminish as his art merges with his outspoken left-wing politics. The Company You Keep is only marginally better and less pedantic than the infuriating, bumbling antiwar tract Lions for Lambs, the low point of Redford’s directorial career, and both movies share a tendency to lecture without providing much real substance. You’d be much better served watching the solid 2002 documentary The Weather Underground, or going closer to the source with Medium Cool, or reading Bill Ayers’s memoir Fugitive Days, which is prominently displayed on Nick Sloan’s coffeetable.
Those who forget history may be doomed to repeat it, but those who keep repeating the same historical arguments aren’t doing us any favors either.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.