Fuse Film Review: The Clichés of “The Company You Keep”

The serious intentions of The Company You Keep are ultimately undermined by the parade of stock cameos.

The Company You Keep. Directed by Robert Redford. At cinemas around New England.

By Tim Jackson.

Robert Redford plays a former radical on the lam in THE COMPANY YOU KEEP

The Company You Keep stars Shia LeBeouf as Ben Shepard, an intrepid cub reporter, and able representative of his generation, determined to uncover the story behind a former Weather Underground radical hidden for 30 years and living as a lawyer in Albany, New York. That lawyer, Jim Grant, who is really Nick Sloan (Robert Redford), has been outed as one of three fugitives of a bank robbery in which a bank guard was killed. Who opened their mouth about Sloan, and why now? In a jailhouse interview, Shepard discovers it wasn’t Sloan’s friend and former compatriot Sharon Solarz (Susan Sarandon), who has just been captured, so Shepard figures there is something bigger afoot. One accomplice in the robbery is still missing, Mimi Lurie (Julie Christie), who has craftily avoided capture for three decades despite operating as a pot smuggler.

Sleuthing across the country, Shepard overcomes moral challenges from Sharon Solarz, threats from the FBI (an irascible Terence Howard), obstacles from his editor (Stanley Tucci in Perry White mode), distrust from Grant’s brother (a scowling Chris Cooper), shadowy secrets from Henry Osborne, a former sheriff involved with the case (a dyspeptic and distrustful Brendan Gleason), and near-romance—were it not for those deep dark secrets—with Osborne’s adopted daughter Rebecca (a radiant and under-used Britt Marling).

On the other end of the chase is Jim Grant /Nick Sloan, who just wants his young daughter to recognize the integrity of his former life. At the same time, he is hunting for his former lover Mimi, who may hold important clues to the truth of his past and the murder he is alleged to have committed. Disguising himself in different colored baseball caps, though never changing his jacket or cool sunglasses, Sloan manages to elude capture while making surprise visits to cohorts of his past—the gravely, grumbling, crusty, blue-collar Nick Nolte, and a disillusioned college professor in the form of a tweedy Richard Jenkins—who just happens to be lecturing on Karl Marx and social responsibility—when Grant slips into his classroom.

Susan Sarandon plays a revolutionary behind bars in THE COMPANY YOU KEEP.

This convoluted plot, teeming with clichés and actors from A- and B-list central casting gets my mind drifting back to those wacky Mad Magazine film spoofs. (Mort Drucker does The Company You Buy). Furthermore, the manhunt and reporter quest aren’t particularly compelling, and the film is really more of a lesson than a thriller. As director, Redford found in the novel by Neil Gordon a story that fit what he needed to say about 1960’s radical politics and protest: that it is morally complex; it is not simply nostalgia; it should be part our cultural conversation; and that the decisions made by certain radicals had political and personal consequences. I happen to be sympathetic to the politics of the film, though I suspect there will be resistance from some ideological quarters, but the serious intentions of the film are ultimately undermined by the parade of stock cameos.

Nevertheless, Redford is a skilled director with the integrity of humanist politics behind a strong body of work. Actors are obviously honored to be under his direction, and the film raises important issues. This being Boston, it is surprising that the case of Katherine Ann Power has not been mentioned in the context of the film. Power, who turned herself in after 23 years of living a life in hiding, had been accomplice to a killing that occurred during a bank hold up, as was the character of Jim Grant. Though in Power’s case the victim was Boston police officer Walter Schroeder, the circumstance of robbing bank to advance the cause of “revolution” has obvious similarities. Power’s reflection on the crime is strikingly similar to the statements made by Sarandon’s character: “The illegal acts I committed arose not from any desire for personal gain but from a deep philosophical and spiritual commitment that if a wrong exists, one must take active steps to stop it, regardless of the consequences to oneself in comfort or security.”

Shia LeBeouf takes on the role of a cub reporter hunting down the truth in THE COMPANY YOU KEEP.

Furthermore, David Gilbert, who was a member of the Weather Underground, is serving a 75 year sentence for his part in the robbery of a Brinks truck where three guards were killed. He and his partner Kathy Boudin were in a get-away U-Haul. She was paroled 10 years ago. He would not acknowledge the “authority of the state” to try him and will not be eligible for parole until 2056. Most remarkable are the founders of the Weather Underground, Bernardine Dohrn and Bill Ayers, who are married, and who were released on technicalities as a result of illegal activities by the FBI’s Counter Intelligence Program whose purpose was to discredit and disrupt domestic political organizations. Today both continue as activists and college professors.

There are other parallels between the film’s story and actual events that are worth looking at. The full and remarkable story of the Weather Underground is told in the documentary The Weather Underground. The history as well as the reputation of the group remains polarizing; for example, the attempt in 2008 by the Republicans to stigmatize Barack Obama for his association with Ayers. Since his days as a “revolutionary,” Ayers has continued as an activist and a writer on education, justice, politics, and history, but the term “revolutionary” has been eclipsed by “terrorist.”

These controversies and perspectives on committed social activism and personal responsibility are at the heart of The Company You Keep, and kudos to Redford for bringing them into conversation and using a battery of Hollywood stars make this film commercial enough to earn a slot in movie houses. The problem with the film may be that Hollywood formulas and familiar movie stars inevitably undercut evocations of radicalism.

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