The Company You Keep
(SPOILERS) You can absolutely see why The Company You Keep would appeal to Robert Redford’s sensibilities, draped as it is in a soft-radical banner and culminating in easy-positive affirmations that even the movie’s inveterate zealot is ultimately swayed by (family over changing the world). As such, it’s a cop-out on a number of levels, but it’s also his most satisfying directorial effort in a considerable time, and when putting its best foot forward, Lem Dobbs’ screenplay (adapting Neil Gordon’s novel) juggles thriller elements with a sometimes-insightful probing of moral imperatives and action over complacency.
Redford’s ex-Weather Underground leader Nick Sloan has hidden himself away under the name Jim Grant for more than 30 years, now an attorney and single (widowed) father, but the arrest of former accomplice Sharon Solarz (Susan Sarandon), mutually wanted for bank robbery and the murder of a security guard, sets Shia LaBeouf’s ambitious young reporter Ben Shepard on his trail. Before long, a national manhunt has begun, requiring Nick to take a road trip to clear his name. You can probably see a problem right there. I mean, apart from the actual Weather Underground never actually killing anyone (besides themselves, accidentally, which lead to the charge that they would have killed members of the public, but that’s an if and maybe; the Brinks Job may have been the inspiration for this, but that was after the Weather Underground’s disbandment, and involved ex-members).
How much more provocative a picture would The Company You Keep have been if Nick did have blood on his hands, rather than offering us the moral cop-out of a newly-inducted Stormtrooper who reneges, having failed to do anything even remotely Stormtrooper-ish? A slightly obtuse comparison, perhaps, but both are symptomatic of reluctance to test audience’s sympathies (not that The Company You Keep found much of an audience anyway; it was more notable for being referenced in a piracy case than its box office). It’s this kind of tepid humanism that prevents the picture from becoming something greater than an assembly of great actors – and the line-up of great actors, often a new one in each scene, is reason enough to check the picture out – and well-worn philosophical debates.
The central one being the climactic meeting between Nick and his ex, Mimi Lurie (Julie Christie, in her last performance to date), which also unspools the “mystery” at the heart of the film, and underlines Nick’s “correct” philosophy, in particularly emotive, melodramatic fashion. Nick and Mimi had a child together (Brit Marling’s Rebecca), who was adopted by ex-police officer Henry Osborne (Brendan Gleeson evidently intended to be a good decade older than he actually is). The adoption part is a particularly awkward contrivance, and its only Christie’s playing of the hard-edged believer that makes the ideals vs reality argument play at all, so intent is Redford on having his way. Nick’s views sound worryingly similar to those of the star’s character in Sneakers, as if he is compelled to justify his cosy, privileged liberal lifestyle through his art (“I didn’t get tired of it. I grew up” he says when Mimi accuses him of betraying his principals).
Mimi: I won’t give myself up to a system I despise.
Nick: How free are you really?
Mimi: I’m not in jail. Everyone has given up and given in and they’re living at the expense of what they once believed. It’s so sad. You understood this. I’m sorry you’ve forgotten.
The exchange between Nick and Mimi is partly appealing just to have these two actors playing against each other (it’s a shame Sarandon and Redford don’t get a scene together, since their last occasion was The Great Waldo Pepper), but Mimi’s unrepentant stance is way more compelling than Nick’s mealy-mouthed platitudes (“I left the movement for the same reason I joined it. Because I didn’t want to see good people’s lives thrown away for nothing”). Indeed, the winning argument is such an irritatingly facile one (what parent wouldn’t agree?) that it gives Mimi’s case additional weight just for being so pandering (“We were so consumed by our principals that we abandoned our most fundamental duty”). As Mimi says, “Every single thing we said then is true today, and every single day it’s getting worse”. But when even a former radical can play the family card and melt the hardest of hearts, it shows the cause is lost, and that the bad guys really have won. There’s also the practical level, besides Nick’s less than heroic suggestion that she should go to prison so he can sit pretty; as a dad in his mid-70s, he should probably be starting to think about his daughter’s future without him on the scene.
Ben: I don’t want to see a guy go to jail for the rest of his life for something he didn’t do.
Nick: Is that what passes for idealism these days?
This picture was made on the cusp of LeBeouf’s more self-destructive career decisions, and he’s well-picked here as something of a self-serving prick who eventually puts principals over career kudos. He’s well-matched in light interludes with Marling, but holds his own against heavyweights like Gleeson and Sarandon. The latter has a particularly fine extended cameo, in which Ben interviews Sharon and she holds forth on her principles. Ben responds glibly to Sharon’s account, suggesting she is justifying herself and that she thought the only option was violence (“We though that sitting at home while our government committed genocide and doing nothing about it, that that was violence”).
Again, this might have been a moment to point out that the Weather Underground was focussed on attacking property (violence against property, if you must: member Mark Rudd commented, “From my own experience, I know that the American people see no distinction between violence against property and violence against human beings. Political violence is a category which does not exist: it is just violence, defined as either criminal or insane or both”), but Redford seems happy to have Terrence Howard’s FBI agent go around labelling them terrorists without qualification (because, in today’s world, everyone and anyone may qualify. Bill Ayers, one of the more prolific members, disputed the label, on the grounds that the Weather Underground’s activities did not involving the killing of innocent civilians: “Terrorists terrorize, they kill innocent civilians, while we organized and agitated. Terrorists destroy randomly, while our actions bore, we hoped, the precise stamp of a cut diamond. Terrorists intimidate, while we aimed only to educate. No, we’re not terrorists”. And again, the counter of the state’s own terrorist activities is not cited.
At least Sharon is allowed confidence in her own position (“Yeah, I would do it again, Smarter, better, different. We made mistakes. But we were right”), even if it’s immediately countered (“Terrorists justify terrorism, Ben. Don’t get confused here”). There’s much more food for debate here than Dobbs (or Dobbs at Redford’s behest) seems willing to broach, and certainly, falling back on a reductive appeal to the most manipulated emotions isn’t the sign of rigorous intellectual rumination.
Also on board are Nick Nolte and Richard Jenkins as old radicals (the latter now a college professor reluctant to give Nick the time of day: “Nancy would forgive me banging a freshman sooner than talking to you”), Chris Cooper as Nick’s brother, Stanley Tucci as Ben’s boss, Anna Kendrick as an FBI agent, Sam Elliott as a flame of Mimi’s, doing that inimitable Sam Elliott thing, and Stephen Root as a pot grower. It’s a dazzling cast, ensuring that almost every scene flares brightly, even when the picture manoeuvres itself into to a stodge of plot mechanics and perfunctory motivation. Cliff Martinez’s elegiac score is also particularly strong.
For all its faults, we should perhaps be grateful The Company You Keep is assured as it is, that it has a voice in spite of its hero’s clichéd motivation. It’s at its most engaging when Redford’s character isn’t presenting his viewpoint; he’s the weak, ameliorating link, whereas Sarandon and Christie, and Jenkins (and even Howard’s obnoxious FBI guy) give a taste of a more defined, spirited piece. This is almost a really good movie, but it ultimately suffers from the same inclination towards ineffectual palatability as much of Redford’s directorial career.
Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.