“The Company You Keep” is packaged as a political drama, but at heart it’s a preachy nostalgia tour of Vietnam-era liberal doctrine.
Robert Redford directs and stars as Jim Grant, a widowed Albany lawyer with a grade-school-age daughter. He’s a rather passive, reactive character, but there is more to him than meets the eye. For decades he has concealed the fact that under a different identity he was a member of a violent 1970s radical group, and is wanted as an accomplice in a fatal bank robbery.
The case is unearthed when another former radical (Susan Sarandon), now a housewife living under an assumed name, is arrested by the FBI. She forthrightly defends her actions in a jailhouse interview with an aggressive young reporter (Shia LaBeouf), who begins investigating her old connections.
Grant, feeling the heat, goes underground again, seeking help from other ex-radicals. Some remain true to their old beliefs, others want no reminders of their past affiliations. Grant, with the authorities on his trail, puts his long-dormant survival skills to use while wondering who to trust.
There is enough plot here to stuff a trilogy, but the film never finds itself. It doesn’t powerfully condemn or condone the ’70s radicals, and fails to relate their actions to today’s anarchic, politically polarized world. Like Redford’s recent directorial efforts “Lions for Lambs” and “The Conspirator,” this is a didactic history lesson with a distinct whiff of chalk and a fusty, lecture-hall air.
Redford is generous with his actors, however, and the film’s saving grace is its sterling cast. Nick Nolte blusters agreeably as a lumberyard owner more than willing to lend Grant a hand. Richard Jenkins plays a history professor trying to interest his class in the roots of radicalism while keeping his tenure. Julie Christie plays Grant’s ex, now a pirate queen sneaking bales of dope into the country under the noses of the Coast Guard. Stanley Tucci is juicy and vital as LaBeouf’s hard-nosed editor, and LaBeouf’s performance as a sharp, politically disengaged hustler is his finest to date.
Redford’s guiding principle as a performer and filmmaker is reticence. He creates films that are respectable but never revolutionary, either stylistically or in terms of content. No wonder “The Company You Keep,” for all its potential as an intelligent thriller, is curiously anticlimactic.
Part of the blame must fall to the script, which hinges on soap-operatic family secrets and a Luke I Am Your Father revelation that would be snickerworthy in a less solemn setting. You watch this flat film imagining how it would have been improved if the dynamic Sarandon had the leading role, and if it had drawn parallels between Vietnam-era radicalism and today’s realities, where a war on terror is fought with killer drones, summary imprisonment and torture.
It should also be noted that Redford, 76, is a decade too old to play a 1970s radical; a scene in which he takes an outdoor run is awkward and painful to behold. Redford’s character explains the truce he made between his past and present lives, declaring “I didn’t get tired, I grew up.” But watching the film, I got tired, and I sense that Redford the filmmaker did, too.