Robert Redford leveraged decades of leading-man success into a directing career that has produced, to date, not a single damn thing worth seeing. I wouldn't normally get so heated right off, but the last film of his I saw was the dreadful The Conspirator, and now the more lackluster The Company You Keep. He has access to top shelf talents and continues making weak films with broad messages that browbeat the audience so completely it's impossible to leave the film missing them.
The Company You Keep was not released into a vacuum and didn't even bother to take a point of view this time. It deals with a very real movement, the Weather Underground, that did some horrible things in the name of protesting the Vietnam War. The film that flirts with the possibility of Redford giving his opinion on the group and what they did but then skirts away by means of plot. It's impossible to give your view on something if you're constantly being scuttled off to the next tensionless stand-off or speech.
This is a subject that demands someone with a point of view, negative or positive, to take hold and offer a direction to the events. Without this, it becomes a series of scenes that set up the next big speech where the camera is always pointed toward an empty space waiting to be filled with a very serious face talking about the past. I don't mind a good speech, but when every big moment is a spin on some variation of old people asking, "We had that fire once didn't we?" it makes makes every lengthy setup that much more painful in the end.
It's possible that this isn't all Redford's fault, maybe the original novel (of the same name) is filled to the brim with the same kind of preachy moments as this adaptation. Still, the film is what I have, so the film is where I must proceed from. Redford directs, produces, and stars as Jim Grant. He is a former member of the Weather Underground who was able to shed his past and adopt a new identity which allowed him to work as a lawyer in peace. After the sudden arrest of an old partner (played by a very serious looking Susan Sarandon) his dual-life is uncovered by Ben, an annoyingly skilled reporter (Shia LeBeouf). The plot splits between two different hunts - Jim for someone who can clear his name, and Ben for the details of why Jim is going to such lengths to clear his name after all these years.
Redford's access to the best talent doesn't mean that the script, written by Lem Dobbs, has anything for them to do. Supporting players played by the likes of Stephen Root and Sam Elliott flit in and out of view long enough to provide crucial pieces of exposition only to disappear once their task is complete. None of them stick around long enough to develop an idea of this network of violent protestors that once existed. They all talk about their former days like I would talk about the chicken I had to eat last night. For the record, it was good chicken, but nothing that I would relate to people over the course of a feature-film production.
I felt bad watching some of the performers struggling to find something to do with their underwritten characters. Terrence Howard, who can be absolutely electric in the right roles, is delegated to staring in the direction of whatever this particular scene's problem is and say that he's going to get it taken care of / caught / investigated. He's in the most direct competition with Stanley Tucci, who is given generic newspaper editor dialogue and is noticeably struggling to make it interesting. Even the mysterious character of Mimi, who is given a lot of buildup and played by the wonderful Julie Christie, gives the same "Remember our fire?" speech we've heard repeatedly and isn't worth the buildup.
There's a good point to be made about how the revolutions of history, no matter how explosive, all dissipate due to the progression of time. But so much in the film is how everyone continues the battle in their own way, be it through legal means, teaching, or good ol' fashioned civil disobedience. So I'm left with the question of what all this is for and cycle back to how taking a point of view on anything would have enhanced the film. This neutral tone, in spite of the very real violence we see, makes certain none of the scenes carry resonance.
All except for one, a moment which is so good it seems airlifted in from a completely different production. When arrested, Sarandon's once-fiery crusader holds LeBeouf's attention during a spellbinding tale of what it was really like to fight the power beyond all the "Groovy" sentiments. The moment is perfect as the reflected Sarandon shows the huge power in her actions all while refusing to look at herself for what she did. A FBI Agent (Anna Kendrick, rounding out a too-full cast of talent) rightly condemns the reporter for letting himself get caught up in the mystique. Evil does not recognize itself, and always spins an attractive tale for those willing to listen. This is the one time The Company You Keep allows itself any sort of opinion, and has great results.
Redford doesn't go in this direction though. It doesn't even allow the influence of that speech to linger in effect for one second longer than when the camera pays attention to her. Instead it's a checklist of events assembled in a film content to get to the conclusion with as little controversy as possible. Whatever Redford's intent was in making this film, forcing neutrality on a volatile subject did not produce anything worth the effort.
Directed by Robert Redford.
Screenplay written by Lem Dobbs.
Starring Redford and Shia LeBeouf.