From time to time, my 8-year-old daughter Madeline likes to "surprise" me. Usually, it's a gift of some kind around a holiday. The problem is -- bless her little heart -- she's terrible at keeping secrets. She'll say things like, "Daddy, close your ears" and then scream-whisper what the gift is in her mom's ear. Or, she'll randomly walk up to me in my home office; stare at me with a silly, sly smile until I acknowledge her; then she asks, "You haven't looked in my closet lately, have you?" Or, two days out from Christmas or my birthday or Father's Day, we'll just be having dinner together and she'll blurt, "Daddy, do you just want to know what your surprise is NOW?!"
Robert Redford is kind of like that in his direction of "The Company You Keep." He has structured his latest big-screen political statement as a mystery-thriller, and my biggest problem with it is not its politics or his issues with the journalism profession. It's the fact that I can figure out its secrets way before the movie chooses to reveal them to the audience. To its credit, the movie isn't solely about plot twists and turns. But when you know exactly whether the main character is innocent or not of the crime he is accused of, when you know almost immediately who the mystery parents of a certain supporting character are way, WAY before the film's screenplay discloses it … yeah, some of the drama is short-circuited.
Redford directs and stars as Jim Grant, a former member of the '60s-era Weather Underground movement, which opposed the Vietnam War and fought against corporate corruption and its growing influence on America and the global marketplace. Its members and supporters often did so with bombings of government buildings and other acts that would be considered domestic terrorism today. During one bank robbery to fund their activities, a security guard ends up getting shot and killed. Jim is suspected to be the gunman or at least one of the masked robbers, as is Mimi Lurie (Julie Christie) and Sharon Solarz (Susan Sarandon). All three go on the run, change their names, and begin living lives anew separately elsewhere.
As the film opens, Sharon is arrested after a wiretap of a mutual friend, organic farmer and former activist Billy Cusimano (Stephen Root), and reveals that she is about to turn herself in after four decades living as a suburban wife and mother of two. Young, hard-charging journalist Ben Shepard (Shia LaBeouf) senses a bigger story and is intrigued by one tip that a lawyer in his local area of Albany, N.Y., refused to serve as her defense attorney. The lawyer turns out to be Jim, and Ben "outs" him in his article. Jim subsequently is forced on the run again, only this time he is not a loner but the recently widowed father of a 12-year-old girl (Jackie Evancho).
Normally, I bristle when screenwriters throw a random kid into the mix of a thriller to goose up the tension. But, in this case, the character works. If you don't agree with the Weather Underground's tactics so many years ago and can't find it in your heart as a viewer to pull for Jim to evade arrest and prosecution, you can at least recognize that he and his daughter have formed a special bond since the loss of her mother and that him going away for the rest of his life would be terrible for the little girl. So, there is a definite emotional pull to the film, and it works as a chase picture as a result.
"The Company You Keep" also works a newspaper film. LaBeouf is really solid as the investigative journalist following every lead. The young actor displays the kind of arrogance and single-mindedness so many young reporters have, especially those chasing their first really big story. He ends resorting to such tactics as bribery and using a former girlfriend now in the FBI.
The main reason to see the film, though, is one you've probably already recognized just from reading about the film for a few paragraphs. The cast is, in a word, incredible! In addition to Redford, Christie, Sarandon, LaBeouf, and Root, the film is sprinkled with a myriad of past Oscar winners and nominees (or great actors who should have been past winners and/or nominees). Every five minutes or so, someone amazing pops up in a small role, whether it's Stanley Tucci as Ben's beleaguered editor or Richard Jenkins as a former hippie turned college professor or Nick Nolte as a not-so-legitimate lumberyard owner. Also in the cast are Terrence Howard, Anna Kendrick, Sam Elliott, Chris Cooper, and Brendan Gleeson.
You would pay an absurd amount of money to watch these actors on a stage together. You can pay a few bucks to see them in this film. All of them play small roles throughout, but their skills add just the right amount of shading to their various parts. You get a sense that all of these people have a history and a past and are not just there to carry the lead actors' luggage and move the plot from Point A to Point B. If anything, this could have been taken to HBO and fleshed out as a miniseries, there is so much meat to the bone here.
I do have some nitpicks with the film's final 15 minutes that I can't go into too much detail here. Broadly speaking, a couple of key moments that the film seemed to have been building up to end up happening off-screen. And a final reunion between two characters in the very last minute inexplicably has its dialogue drowned out by Cliff Martinez's musical score. I kind of wanted to know what the two were saying to each other.
But I was reasonably entertained throughout. "The Company You Keep" is an interesting snapshot of those who lived in the shadow of the Greatest Generation, whose youth was spent trying to change the world, and whose middle and now old age have been spent dealing with the triumphs and failures of their idealism. At the very least, this generation proves that they still have compelling stories to tell. I give it a 6 out of 10. (T. Durgin)