Directed by and starring Robert Redford, “The Company You Keep” is an astute if scarcely tense thriller about the desperate attempt of a former Weather Underground student revolutionary to clear his name of murder. A video surveillance flashback shows the killing was committed during a bank robbery loosely based on the Brink’s armored car robbery by WU and Black Liberation Army members in 1981.
Scripted by Lem Dobbs from Neil Gordon’s novel, the movie is ultimately a guarded lament for the loss of radical idealism (if not the violence) espoused by the Weathermen. Founded in Ann Arbor in 1969, the leftist group adopted and adapted some of the methods and rhetoric of the Black Panthers in their campaigns against the Vietnam War, racism, and the class system. Overthrowing the government was on the agenda.
Toward the end of the film, Redford’s on-the lam Jim Grant (the name he has assumed as an Upstate New York public interest lawyer) takes a potshot at the inertia of the Facebook generation, evincing disgust at the absence of resistance today. The implication, that consumerism and narcissism have softened contemporary kids, is hard to argue with but a mite simplistic.
Along with Redford, the ageing Weathermen are played by Susan Sarandon, Nick Nolte, Richard Jenkins, and Julie Christie, who as refugees have reinvented themselves. Of these, Sarandon’s character has turned herself in after 30 years, triggering the FBI’s hunt for Grant. In his cross-country search for Mimi Lurie (Christie), who alone can testify that he wasn’t involved in the murder, Grant has grudging encounters with his former colleagues – it’s hostile in the case of Jenkin’s university lecturer, who regrets his Weathermen past. Time and defeat have worn them down. Only the steely Lurie, Grant’s lover at the height of the Weathermen’s war, is a holdout against compromise, notwithstanding that her latest boyfriend (Sam Elliott) plays the stock market.
“The Company You Keep” is driven by the pursuit of Grant by the young hotshot reporter Ben Shepard (Shia LaBoeuf), who broke the story. Although it builds toward the showdown between Grant and Lurie, it is the eventual meeting in the wilds between the careworn man of principles and the soulless young egoist that carries the greater moral weight. Redford’s decision to make the scene anticlimactic was smart: it focuses attention on the clash of values far more effectively than a shouting match would have done. Grant’s planting of an ethical question mark in Shepard is delicately done.
Some reviewers are suggesting that Redford’s casting of himself, Sarandon, Nolte, Jenkins, and Christie is problematic. (Was Jane Fonda offered a part?) Save Redford (born 1936), they were all born between 1941 and 1947, which makes their ages roughly commensurate with the ages of such Weathermen as Bernardine Dohn, Bill Ayers, Karen Ashley, and David Gilbert, who were born between 1942 and 1949. Grant’s having an 11-year-old daughter is the biggest eyebrow-raiser.
Of course, the casting of iconic liberals lends a poetic resonance to “The Company You Keep,” as does its opening this Friday (April 5), the same day as Shola Lynch’s documentary about the Civil Rights activist Angela Davis, “Free Angela and All Political Prisoners.” Redford’s film may feel like a last stand for Hollywood radicalism, but it passes muster as a conscience-pricker, if not quite as a fresh call to arms.