It’s almost impossible to make a nuanced Hollywood film about the anti-Vietnam War movement and its violent offshoot, the Weather Underground, without the demands of commercialism getting in the way. Want to take on a controversial subject like 1960s domestic terrorism? Fine. Just don’t take sides, so you don’t alienate a significant part of the audience. Avoid lengthy discussions about political tactics. Keep the story moving (chase scenes anyone?). And make sure you have an upbeat ending.
Voila! A film that says very little and pleases almost no one, which pretty much describes actor/director Robert Redford’s latest work. “The Company You Keep” is, on one level, a movie about grizzled veterans of the ’60s trying to come to terms with their past. But it’s also a film without a real point of view, wallowing in ambiguity and mushiness. And that’s a serious problem.
Redford himself stars as Nick Sloan, a former Weather Underground radical who has been living for decades under an assumed name after a bank robbery by the group turned deadly and a guard was murdered. When fellow radical Sharon Solarz (Susan Sarandon), who has been living the life of a suburban housewife, is finally captured by the FBI, Sloan, afraid his cover might also be blown, goes on the lam to track down an old accomplice and lover who can prove he didn’t participate in the holdup.
Sloan’s trek takes him from Albany, N.Y., where he has established a legal practice, to a number of cities throughout the East and Midwest, where he meets up with former movement activists: Donal Fitzgerald (Nick Nolte), an unrepentant lumber yard owner who takes Sloan in; Jed Lewis (Richard Jenkins), a university professor who was always opposed to the Weather Underground’s violent tactics; and Mimi Lurie (Julie Christie), Sloan’s former lover, still radical and on the run after all these years.
In the meantime, hot-shot Albany newspaper reporter Ben Shepard (Shia LaBeouf) is on Sloan’s trail, seeing the story as his ticket to the big time. He’s a bulldog and kind of a jerk, not really caring about the lives of the people he’s writing about. And his repellant careerism is meant to stand in stark contrast to the idealism of these aging lefties, who, whether or not you agree with their tactics, sincerely wanted to end an unjust and murderous war.
But that simplistic juxtaposition is among the many things that makes “The Company You Keep” less than compelling. Redford’s direction is competent but stodgy, and most of the characters are barely fleshed out ‘types,’ mouthing political platitudes. Worse, there’s a ‘reveal’ that leads to a soap opera ending which undermines nearly everything that has gone before it.
Blessed with one of the most amazing casts imaginable (Terrence Howard, Chris Cooper, Stanley Tucci, Brendan Gleeson, Anna Kendrick and Brit Marling also make appearances), Redford’s film still manages to be the worst of all possible worlds – it’s a shorthand version of a complex subject, and not a terribly interesting one at that. Young audiences will be puzzled by all the sturm and drang. And boomers who lived through the war years will start to wonder if they were as inconsequential as this film.