TIFF Review: Robert Redford's 'The Company You Keep' Is An Unconvincing Bit Of Agitprop

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by Simon Abrams
September 9, 2012 8:43 PM
8 Comments
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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 hungry, young investigative journalist 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, 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 is 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 forme 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-]

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8 Comments

  • Stassinopoulis Post | May 8, 2013 4:17 PMReply

    While attempting to shame the “small-minded” among us into forgiving the terrorist and murderer Kathy Boudin and forgetting that she’s on the faculty, the student newspaper of Columbia University, the Columbia Daily Spectator, puts into writing a concept that many outside academia have observed for years: “What is the aim of college, after all, if not to ask students to rethink the categories of good and evil even change their minds?” Inside academic circles, this type of thinking is lauded as enlightenment. Outside academic circles, this concept is known as moral relativism, and it is widely regarded as undermining the culture of this country.

    Ms. Boudin may have paid her legal debt to society, but as the Spectator acknowledges, “nothing can repair the lifelong pain that the families of the Brinks robbery victims still experience. The trauma that these people endured must surely make Boudin’s position at Columbia seem cruel and ironic. She lives, teaches, and receives recognition; their loved ones never had the chance.” At the end of her incarceration, Ms. Boudin opted against a quiet life of remorse that she claims to feel, she chooses to work at a high profile university, to publish and to make speeches.

    The pattern of convicted domestic terrorists profiting from the crimes of their youth with speaking fees, book royalties, and tenured positions at distinguished universities is unsettling. Ms. Boudin drawing a salary to teach the brightest and best young minds in this country is tantamount to a serial rapist taking a salaried position as a grief counselor.

    If Boudin has truly made a transformation from a reckless radical to becoming socially responsible, there would be no need for her to shine a spotlight on herself by publishing, speaking, and teaching at an Ivy League school. Her post-conviction life screams “Hey look at me being socially responsible” very loudly. I don’t blame anyone bothered by her screaming “Hey look at me being socially responsible” from her ivy-covered ivory tower.

  • shalom | October 16, 2012 8:51 PMReply

    you mr redford took away the rights of Che's nurse allowing her and her daughter to face off with the hit squads who killed her. So where is your leverage of authority here in speaking about the right or wrong of a pipeline. The nurse was poisoned upon the release of your film. A woman who helped set up Sharon Tate and Jay Sebring for murder stole all of the che work she could and poisoned the nurse and the daughter, and they squared off with death while you collected money on Che. This world war II nurse was made to get new heart valves because of the poison but the killers who hated your release of the film wouldn't let her live. Her pipes were poisoned again and again, and she was suffocated ultimately by the killers you left her vulnerable to, while you bought and sold "story". The daughter is handicapped, Mr. Redford. So, you, Big Redford, are like "big oil" to the victims of the killers while you collect money on work of Che that was not yours. You have had friends around you asked to speak to you about this for over a year and you make no move to be a redeemer. This situation has made you look like one of the extras on the Dallas murder of JFK, Mr. Redford. Leaving the witness vulnerable to the killers, just sitting back and doing nothing to make up for damages. How much would be made if you were sued for the life of an American World War II army surgical nurse, Mr. Redford? What are you doing, commenting on oil? A standard oil hitman met me this year, what is going on? Are you even awake on your feet? The Standard Oil team kept you alive long enough to be strong and you let her die. The daughter fought and fought and had to pull a fake gun on a skin head and you ask us to "listen very carefully". How much is a witness on intel worth? and why this set-up to kill witnesses coming from you?

  • ron | September 11, 2012 11:08 AMReply

    what exactly are you reviewing here? The film or Redford's politics?

  • val welch | December 6, 2012 6:05 PM

    Ron, good question, the dialogue is regarding both the film and Redford's politics. Redford gives time to a film about a rouge while a rouge who cares about us being safe from the nuke is murdered on his watch. It is hoped that Redford didn't know what he was doing when he put his "fast forward to the next film on a rouge" as priority over the life of a rouge (who was in the wars that include moving nukes). Redford's past film on Che involved the work of Che and this nurse was a literal important weaver of the threads that were Che; this nurse was trying to see where a nuke was moved and also clearing the Fidel question on the murder of JFK. Instead of moving fast forward to one more film about a rouge (and I am certain that the film is great and actors incredible etc.) but, when there are lives to protect that were put at murder risk due to a past Redford film, priority toward protecting actual life should be priority and manditory (in my view). It is a responsibility of film makers to address the wake of their films, the damage in making a film that is treading over the footprint in the tender sand of intel, especially when the tender sand with the footprints could have lead us to clear up the rouge nuke question. These are not wilde ramblings here, these words pertain to the loss of an agent level person who had the interface of the past (Che's past) with the wisdom of not offending the assassin squads while searching for answers. The nurse lost was my mom and we were kept in a cave of violence that got much worse with each release of a new Redford film, beginning with the making of motorcycle diaries. The President from the Cuban Missile Crisis time (che time) was murderd, all nations have questions, and the JFK murder pertains to 9ll, with the threading of a terrorist over the northern border. For Redford to proceed without addressing the safety of these people after allowing the iron maiden to close on them with his releases, is neglect of both life and art on a criminal level. I have cared immensely for Redford and art, but he has orderd me as murdered as my mom by not reaching out. Why not care about the true rouge WHILE releasing the "next great thing" such as this great film. Why does the legacy have to be just talk when it comes to the safety of human life; a World War II Operating Room nurse is a real life rouge in Cuba and Redford's film put such a death order on us we were not even allowed to have a funeral or a priest at her grave or an obituary. Now I am shot at again, what next, a new great film on a rouge?

  • DomizianoA | September 11, 2012 9:50 AMReply

    I am sorry for Simon Abrams and his very off putting, clearly hating review but i completely agree with Walter Trishna and his take!
    What movie did mr.Abrams see?
    He doesn't even mention Julie Christie who's just sublime and so convincing and has one hell of a final scene with Redford both glowing, and no matter the age!
    Dialog is formidable, plot is thrilling yet with insightful touching characters development!
    A fantastic and rightly so melancholic drama, with a political thriller undertone is for me Academy Awards material!
    And so are its actors and Lem Dobbs script and Cliff Martinez fantastic score!
    And yes this film is about complex American history, and people with at least a few ideals, for God's sake! They didn't bother then about Reality TV or the net.. they were giving their lives for a cause! Please go see this movie!!! Whoever you are!

  • Walter Trishna | September 10, 2012 3:19 PMReply

    Wow, did we see the same movie? I was at the 11:30 a.m. TIFF press screening and couldn't agree less with your comments. I realize that The Playlist/IndieWire is not in the critical pantheon, but surely the powers-that-be at the website could have sent someone who appreciates traditional, well-made dramas that dare to broach subjects deeper than the underwear of comic book heroes. For starters, the audience of press and industry people certainly seemed to enjoy the film. Secondly, the movie is beautifully acted and very well-made. Maybe you just have a problem with dialogue that propels a film as opposed to car chases. Anyway, "The Company You Keep" is a movie meant to tell a story that causes members of the audience to actually engage in a conversation about ideas, rather than dashing out and saying: "gee, that was cool." The film is about a time in American history that was complex and still hasn't played out in terms of old animosities. The movie captures that perfectly.

  • J.B. | September 10, 2012 11:37 AMReply

    Just wondering....Are critics paid on a sliding scale? Do you (critics) get paid extra the nastier the review? Does your hatred of "bleeding hearts" extend to all politically liberal leaning individuals, or is it reserved for Mr. Redford?

    Vote Romney. He's the best politician money can buy!

  • Huffy | September 9, 2012 11:09 PMReply

    Redford has to be one of the most overrated directors out there all thanks to the fact that he's acting royalty (not to mention the fact that he panders to the Academy). People complain about the attention Eastwood constantly gets but at least he's a good craftsman and has a knack for picking good scripts (usually).

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