A former Weather Underground activist goes on the run from a journalist who has discovered his identity.
Robert Redford plays the former activist Nick Sloan, now a civil rights lawyer called Jim Grant living in upstate New York. He has been hidden in plain sight for thirty years. When a former activist colleague, Sharon Solarz (Susan Sarandon), who has also been in hiding, is arrested by the FBI, Grant knows it is only a matter of time before he will be found out. A group of ex-Weather Underground activists have been off-the-grid since the early 1970s after a bank robbery went wrong and a guard was killed. An inexperienced but dogged young journalist, Ben Shepard (LaBeouf), gets on Grant’s trail and makes his continued freedom even less likely. Grant wants to prove his innocence because he is the only living parent of an 11-year-old daughter.
Robert Redford was a bona fide movie star from the 1960s to the ’80s. He has had major involvement in the growth of American independent film by founding the Sundance Film Festival and the Sundance Channel. He is well known to be on the left politically and has supported major environmental causes. He has also directed the Oscar-winning ORDINARY PEOPLE (1980) as well as A RIVER RUNS THROUGH IT (1992), QUIZ SHOW (1994) and THE HORSE WHISPERER (1998). He brings with him an impressive amount of cultural baggage for audiences over the age of 40. Redford is definitely talking to his core audience with this movie, but it is clear that THE COMPANY YOU KEEP also exists to send a message to a younger audience.
Shepard the journalist represents that sceptical younger generation unimpressed with the legacy of the Baby Boomers. He doesn’t believe in what Grant stood for and Grant doesn’t understand why someone as smart as Shepard is working for “The Man”. This philosophical difference runs through the film, as does the question of truth and belief. Both Solarz and Grant are former true believers whose youthful, uncompromising world-views changed as they became parents and raised their respective families. Grant searches for Mimi Lurie (Julie Christie) as an alibi to his actions. She is still on the run and unlike the others has not softened her political stance through the years.
Redford has assembled a terrific cast. Nick Nolte, Richard Jenkins, Terrence Howard, Stanley Tucci and Brendon Gleeson all turn in solid performances. LaBoeuf is very good as Shepard. He plays it with the right combination of cockiness and vulnerability. He and Gen Y fave Anna Kendrick are the youngest members of this ensemble. Writers Lem Dobbs and Neil Gordon have furnished their director with a screenplay of sufficient subtlety and complexity to entertain an audience who want to work through a plot with some meat on its bones.
My enjoyment of these excellent ingredients was undercut by the feeling that at 76 years old, Mr Redford cannot fully convince as a man on the run. Two of Redford’s great screen roles inform this one; the real life Bob Woodward in ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN (1976) and the fictional Joe Turner in THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR (1975). Both films were studio pictures that attempted to speak directly to the discontent and mistrust of the Baby Boomer audience. In ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN, Woodward feels he is constantly under government surveillance and he fears for his life, in THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR, Turner is on the run from the US Secret Service who want him dead. If you’ve seen Redford in these roles, then Jim Grant suffers in comparison. He’s like an ageing, frailer version of those characters.
It would be fair at this point to call me on the ageist turn this review has taken, but I believe that an audience’s suspension of disbelief does have a connection to our lived reality. There’s a scene where Jim Grant has to read tiny numbers from a piece of paper and then dial a mobile telephone in dim light, a trick I can’t manage even though I am thirty years Redford’s junior. Hollywood takes our fear of mortality and and does everything it can to distract us from the inevitability of encroaching decrepitude and death. But every trick in the book can’t disguise the fact that Jim Grant escaping the authorities seems extremely unlikely given his physical condition. The presence of Julie Christie has the same effect on the credibility of the tale. Redford and Christie were two of the iconic faces of the 1960s and ’70s. They were beautiful. So there is some unease seeing them in their present ‘worked on’ state. Which is not to criticise these actors, they know we don’t want to see them looking ‘old’ like normal people. We don’t want to see them looking like us.
For those of you less shallow than I am and more accepting of Hollywood magic, this movie is good, middlebrow stuff. It is something of a return to directorial form for Redford after 2010’s rather dull THE CONSPIRATOR.
THE COMPANY YOU KEEP runs for 125 minutes and is in Australian cinemas now. My rating is 5/10.