By Simon Abrams | The Playlist April 4, 2013 at 4:58PM
The third film in Robert Redford’s recent series of stillborn, bleeding heart dramas, "The Company You Keep" is a busy but inert civic-minded thriller. As a director, Redford has yet to break his recent habit of using hackneyed dialogue to talk down to his audience with Aaron Sorkin-esque dialogue that authoritatively spells out his talking points. But unlike "Lions for Lambs," an impressively incensed civics lesson that thinks it’s a drama, "The Company You Keep" is too cool of a film to be admired for its creator’s chutzpah alone. In fact, it’s probably the most frustrating of Redford’s recent films because it has a pseudo-contemplative atmosphere to it, one that superficially begs viewers to reflect upon how far they would go for their convictions. Political apathy is the real enemy in "The Company You Keep," making it pitiably ironic that Redford’s latest is as unmoving as it is.
Redford stars as Jim Grant, a former member of the Weather Underground. An introductory montage explains that the Weather Underground was a group of political dissidents that blew up buildings and killed people as acts of protest against the Vietnam War. Grant, now living a new life as a lawyer in Albany, must go on the run after a hungry, young investigative journalist named Ben Shepard (Shia Labeouf) blows Grant’s cover in a story about the arrest of Sharon Solarz (Susan Sarandon), also a former Weatherman. While Shepard chases him and tries to discover his motives, Grant flees cross-country and meets up with former members of the Weather Underground along the way.
One of the many problems with Redford’s loaded scenario is that he fails to sufficiently qualify his approval for the Weather Underground’s actions. We know how they define themselves, but in spite of Shepard’s dogged line of gotcha questioning, he’s also not a very good journalist, and not in the way that Redford wants us to think. Furthermore, it’s rarely clear, beyond rhetorical reasons, why Shepard is singled out by Redford to be witness to this later chapter in Redford’s would-be revolutionaries’ stories.
Grant, several people associated with the Weathermen and even Shepard’s editor (Stanley Tucci) express trenchantly wearied disdain for Shepard’s vainglorious questions. The general consensus is that Shepard’s only interested in filing stories about Grant, Solarz and their associates because it will advance his career. Which doesn’t explain why a couple of Weathermen trust Shepard with their stories, on or off the record. Presumably they see something good in him just because he’s intelligent and inquisitive. But that quest for knowledge never makes Shepard more complex than a determined cipher. Redford excuses this by having Shepard confess that he is only ferreting out details now and will figure out what he will make his story later. Shepard sighs that this is why “journalism is dead,” but that’s presumably also why Shepard is such a promising witness to what happens next to Grant and his friends.
The problem with this mentality is that Shepard never really pursues his subjects far enough to discover just how remorseful they are (the phrase, “Mistakes were made,” is repeated a couple of times) nor why they felt compelled to kill civilians for the sake of making a stand. When Shepard is talking to Solarz, he never even thinks to ask her if the “mistakes” she made includes blowing people up, or perhaps something else she’s vaguely alluding to. Likewise, a crucial later scene where Grant talks to a former colleague who, like Solarz, shows no lingering remorse over her actions, it just reveals how callous the perspective Redford is viewing his characters’ actions from. On a basic level, he agrees with Solarz when she excuses killing people for a cause, “Because we were right.” Both "Lions for Lambs" and "The Conspirator" similarly have protagonists champion the notion that doing something, anything to help stop violence or social inequality is a noble act. The particulars of what’s done don’t matter, making it easy enough to let former terrorists off the hook for their previous indiscretions.
So while Labeouf lazily chases Redford and viewers for the film’s two painfully protracted hour-runtime, Grant and his friends didactically bicker about what’s right and what’s wrong without ever bothering to seriously interrogate their own assumptions about ethics. The fact that Redford never goes that far makes one wonder who exactly he’s made "The Company You Keep" for. As his latest of three vanity projects/ unconvincing bits of agitprop, nobody but diehard fans left want to be mildly lectured. But even with so many talented actors involved, there’s nothing really galvanizing or particularly provocative about Redford’s latest. At least Clint Eastwood didn’t talk to that empty chair for two hours. [C-]
This is a reprint of our review from the Toronto International Film Festival.