[5 April 2013]
Robert Redford kicked off his directing career with instant acclaim. He won Best Director for his first feature, Ordinary People. And yet he’s only directed eight movies in the three decades since, more visible as an actor and in his work with the Sundance Institute.
This may be changing. Over the last few years, Redford has appeared on screen less frequently and directed more often. The Company You Keep is his third feature since 2007. This isn’t quite the movie-a-year pace of Clint Eastwood, but their directing choices are worth comparing. Despite dissimilar temperaments and interests, Redford and Eastwood share an old-fashioned approach to the craft. Eastwood is known as an unfussy, no-frills filmmaker, but Redford’s work is even more pared down, less punctuated by stylistic flourishes or personal signatures.
Redford’s new film, The Company You Keep, may be about former Vietnam War era radicals hiding out in the present day, but its straight-line, unsubtle approach to the issues and themes (Redford, particularly late-career Redford, loves issues) feels square—in ways both limiting and appealingly retro.
Redford plays Jim Grant, a do-gooder lawyer in upstate New York whose name pops up in an investigation (that is, a Google search) by local reporter Ben Shepard (Shia LaBeouf). That investigation begins when Sharon Solarz (Susan Sarandon), once a member of the Weather Underground, turns herself in to the FBI, decades after she was implicated in a murder case. Ben quickly figures out that Grant was also a Weatherman and Grant quickly acts to avoid capture, leaving his young daughter (Jackie Evancho) with his brother (Chris Cooper), then tracking down his former colleagues. The movie’s point of view shifts between Grant and Ben as they conduct parallel investigations into the past.
Grant recalls another Redford character, the one he played in Sneakers (1992), also a former radical, hiding out under an assumed name, with a past that comes back to haunt him. Ben seems another sort of reference: as devised by Redford and screenwriter Lem Dobbs, he embodies the rootless, callow nature of today’s journalists, unfavorably compared to, say, the Bob Woodward Redford played in All the President’s Men. Though Sneakers was a pure caper and All the President’s Men a brainy procedural, The Company You Keep manages to be less fun and less thought-provoking than either. It has more life than Redford’s Lions for Lambs, but its dialogue-as-debate recalls that speechy, inert movie from 2007.
Maybe the problem is that Redford can’t play both of The Company You Keep‘s lead parts. A star of his caliber and charisma might have made Ben seem someone more likable or understandable. LaBeouf, rumpled up and unshaved, has the grasping energy to play a journalist whose ambitions overwhelm his ethics, but Ben and even the movie, eventually, appear confused about his motivations. After Ben’s big interview scene with Sharon, two FBI agents (Anna Kendrick and Terrence Howard) accuse him, nonsensically, of falling in thrall of the Weather Underground’s cause even though he has repeatedly expressed skepticism about their ideals, even in that interview. Elsewhere, Grant and others accuse Ben of opportunistically milking the story. The contradictions might suggest ambiguity, and Ben does voice his own increasing ambivalence. But his decisions seem dictated by plot rather than a character arc, and LaBeouf gets lost in a big ensemble.
That ensemble is a knockout: veterans and current stars keep the movie running, with almost every speaking part filled by a familiar and fascinating face. Not everyone has an equal shot at making an impression: Kendrick and Howard recede from the story early on, as does Sarandon, following the interview with Ben. But in the back half of the movie, Richard Jenkins does strong work as the most reluctant of Grant’s old friends, and Brit Marling lights up her scenes as the daughter of a key figure in the case.
But good performances can’t quite smooth over the movie’s fuzzy timeline, and sometimes they even call attention to it. One character, born when several Weather Underground members went into hiding in the ‘70s, is specifically identified as 30 years old when she should be well on her way to 40. Beyond such temporal incoherence, though, The Company You Keep raises broader questions about why, exactly, it turns to actual history to tell this muddled fiction. By mixing a real radical group with fictional characters, Redford and Dobbs form a bizarre equivalency, whether pardoning or blaming made-up figures for made-up crimes that vaguely resemble real ones.
Still, The Company You Keep provides occasional pleasures. The endless combinations of its excellent cast, the sight of still-spry Redford improvising his way out of the FBI’s grasp, and its portraits of interconnected former radicals undercover in normal society are all briefly absorbing. But Redford is too earnest to embrace his story’s genre trappings. He wants to sit down and have a serious talk about the story’s issues, even if that talk doesn’t seriously elucidate those issues.