By Dan Metcalf
Clipper Film Correspondent
The Company You Keep (Sony Pictures Classics)
Rated R for language.
Starring Robert Redford, Shia LaBeouf, Julie Christie, Susan Sarandon, Nick Nolte, Chris Cooper, Terrence Howard, Stanley Tucci, Richard Jenkins, Anna Kendrick, Brendan Gleeson, Brit Marling, Sam Elliott, Stephen Root, Jackie Evancho.
Written by Lem Dobbs, based on the novel by Neil Gordon.
Directed by Robert Redford.
Domestic terrorism sure has a bad name these days, and it's about time someone made a movie showing the kinder, gentler side of it (please note the sarcasm here, and resist the urge to send angry letters the Clipper editors). Timing is everything, they say, and perhaps it's bad timing that a movie about aging domestic terrorists came out the same week as the Boston bombings. Timing aside, The Company You Keep is out in limited release, but it's not exactly that controversial.
Robert Redford directs himself and stars as an upstate New York attorney (and widowed father of a little girl) named Jim Grant, who is thrown into exile when a nosy reporter reveals that he is really Nick Sloan, a former member of the Weather Underground Organization, a group of radical, violent domestic terrorists who fought against the Vietnam War back in the 1960s and 70s (although the movie muddles up the historical timing quite a bit). The nosy reporter is Ben Shepard (Shia LeBeouf), who is investigating the why Sharon Solarz (Susan Sarandon), another former WUO member has recently come out of hiding after years of living a secret life as an ordinary housewife. Sloan went onto hiding after being indicted for the murder of a security officer who was killed during a WUO bank robbery in Michigan.
As Sloan goes on on the lam, he leaves his daughter Isabel (Jackie Evancho) with his brother Daniel (Chris Cooper) and heads out to find another former-WUO-member-in-hiding named Mimi Lurie (Julie Christie), in the hope that she can clear his name for the death of the security officer. Sloan and Lurie were apparently romantically involved during their radical days. During his journey, Sloan reaches out for help from other “Weathermen” like blue-collar businessman Donal Fitzgerald (Nick Nolte) and university professor Jed Lewis (Richard Jenkins).
Meanwhile, Shepard digs deeper into the WUO past, leading him on a path to Michigan, where Sloan, Lurie and former police chief Henry Osborne (Brendan Gleeson) share a history. The retired Osborne is the same police officer who investigated the bank robbery murder decades earlier, and still lives in the area with his wife and adult daughter Rebecca (Brit Marling), who attends Michigan University. Ben meets Rebecca and is drawn to her beauty, despite the obvious potential for getting too close to a source. At the same time, The FBI chases after Sloan, led by special agent Cornelius (Terrence Howard), an d bend editor (Stanley Tucci) threatens to fire the young reporter unless he deliver a whopper of a story.
As Sloan's, Mimi's and Ben's paths converge, the true story about what happened during the bank robbery is revealed, as is Sloan's motives for trying to connect with his lost love. Ben must decide whether it's more important to tell the truth, or protect innocent victims of the truth.
The Company You Keep has more than a few problems. Although it's work of fiction (based on Neil Gordon's novel), the story is based on the very real WUO, resulting in a lot of continuity issues. The situations of the fictional story mirror some very real events, like the death of a police officer during a bombing in 1970, thought to involve WUO members (although no WUO member was ever indicted for the crime). Several characters in The Company You Keep mirror real people, like Richard Jenkins, whose location (Illinois) and career (professor) bear a strong resemblance to the infamous (and still proud) WUO leader Bill Ayers. Ah, but The Company You Keep offers a much cleaner and sympathetic version of the “Weathermen,” implying that all their motives and practices were clean and pure. Redford's apology tour seems to whitewash the fact that the WUO was in fact a domestic terrorist group, and even though they ended up killing more of their own members (by inept bomb making) than they did politicians, U.S. military leaders or police officers, they did instill terror in the hearts of the public for nearly a decade, and managed to bomb several buildings and significant landmarks. That may be an unfortunate coincidence with the film's release coming the same week that someone decided to bomb the Boston Marathon, but the reality is that bombs aren't meant to simply make a statement; they are intended to destroy, maim, or in some cases, kill.
All ideological history or continuity aside, there are some cinematic problems that make The Company You Keep less-than-spectacular, despite some noteworthy performances from Redford, Sarandon, Jenkins, Tucci and Christie. One major defect is the plot of the film, which can be figured out just before the start of the third act (no spoilers, but it involves parenthood). The other is the film's pace, which can occasionally seem like an action thriller, but comes across as more of a drawn-out Peyton Place/soap opera set in the world of geriatric revolutionaries. The brief cat-and-mouse scenes between Sloan, Shepard and the FBI are sparsely interspersed between a lot of monologues about the WUO ideology and how its members handle the golden years. That's not exactly what a political thriller should be, and has more to say about the sad state of journalism than it does about the quagmire of Vietnam and the cultural revolution.