relevant films for adults are so rare that you want to root for each one that
comes along, especially from a filmmaker as imposing as Robert Redford. This
one not only brings the actor back to the screen but surrounds him with an
A-list cast. Alas, there’s no getting around the fact that The Company You Keep misses the mark, despite its promising
Shia LaBeouf is quite good as an enterprising reporter for an Albany newspaper who misses out on a big story in his own back yard—the surrender of a woman who’s been on the FBI’s “most wanted” list for thirty years—but makes up for it with his dogged follow-through, looking up the other student radicals from the Weather Underground movement and trying to figure out how their stories connect.
Redford plays a fellow fugitive who has reinvented himself, under a new name, and lived quietly all these years until this story blows up. As a recent widower, his primary concern is his 11-year-old daughter, and it’s his relationship with her that sends him on the road to settle some long-unfinished business, with reporter LaBeouf hot on his trail.
Lem Dobbs’ screenplay (based on a novel by Neil Gordon) lays out the situation quite well, and the casting of formidable actors in virtually every role gives weight to each new episode in the unfolding story. It’s the denouement that doesn’t quite add up; nor do the warnings issued to young LaBeouf that he can’t continue to view people’s behavior in terms of black and white. When the film is over we understand what motivated its various characters—in shades of gray—but we aren’t left with anything to chew on. The film has no resonance; it’s almost like a Cliff’s Notes version of what might have happened during the heyday of the Students for a Democratic Society instead of a probing drama about that tumultuous time in American life.
It’s always a pleasure to see Redford flex his acting muscles and reaffirm his screen charisma. Other key roles are filled by Susan Sarandon, Nick Nolte, Julie Christie, Sam Elliott, Chris Cooper, Brendan Gleeson, Terrence Howard, Anna Kendrick, Stanley Tucci, Stephen Root, and Brit Marling. No film with a lineup like that can be routinely dismissed, but the good intentions of The Company You Keep go largely unrealized, and that’s a shame. Even after all these years, I think of Running on Empty (1988), written by Naomi Foner and directed by Sidney Lumet. It tackled similar subject matter in fictionalized form, but I’ve never forgotten its emotional impact. Redford’s film doesn’t come close.