The last few movies directed by Robert Redford — 2007’s “Lions for Lambs” and 2010’s “The Conspirator” — were such dispiriting moral lectures that “The Company You Keep” comes as a relief. In short, Redford is interested in telling stories again, rather than pounding us on the head for our civic and historical sins. That’s not to say the new film doesn’t have plenty on its mind, from the ethical bankruptcy of the media to the costs of political passion in the 1960s and today. But it moves, and it doesn’t pretend to have all the answers, and it sticks in your mind for longer than you’d think.
In the opening scenes, we see a Canadian housewife and mom, played by Susan Sarandon, bid farewell to her home and drive across the US border, where she’s immediately arrested at a gas station. A onetime student radical responsible for the death of a bank guard in an early-’70s robbery, she’s ready to pay for her crimes, and her appearance heats up the search for her confederates by the FBI (headed by Terrence Howard) and the press. Ben Shepard (Shia LeBeouf) is a slick young reporter for an Albany, N.Y., paper who starts nosing around a local public interest lawyer named Jim Grant (Redford) and quickly smokes him out as one of the Weather Underground crew, Nick Sloane. Jim/Nick hits the road, and we’re off.
So far, so very “Running on Empty,” the 1988 movie about a fugitive family of radicals. But “The Company You Keep” throws a bit of Hitchcock into the mix when Ben realizes Nick is running the wrong way — not back into hiding but toward evidence that might exonerate him. The script, by Lem Dobbs, based on a novel by Neil Gordon, juggles a thriller plot structure with rueful dramatic reunions between Nick and his former peers — those whose activism turned violent and those who remembered they were fighting for peace.
Those scenes are pleasing simply for the deep and unexpected bench of older actors Redford calls upon. Here’s Chris Cooper as Nick’s stiff-necked brother, Nick Nolte in full incomprehensible gargle, Richard Jenkins as a disapproving professorial peer, Brendan Gleeson as a cop with a secret, and — out of nowhere — a weathered but imperious Julie Christie as Nick’s old flame, Mimi, still on the run and still married to the movement. (In an amusingly mellow performance, Sam Elliott plays her current lover, a hippie day trader.)
The kids, by contrast, have less to do: Anna Kendrick as an FBI field officer, Brit Marling as the cop’s daughter, and an annoyingly perky Jackie Evancho as Nick’s 11-year-old daughter. Nick’s wife is dead in a car crash and Redford is 76; the math works, I guess, but you have to stop while you’re watching the movie to figure it out (as you do in a development involving another of the younger characters).
LeBeouf’s Ben is there to catch most of the flak, about the fecklessness of the modern generation and the shadiness of reporters. “I don’t believe in either side,” the reporter brags to Nick, who snipes back, “I suppose that makes you fair and balanced?” There’s a lot of that in the script; Redford clearly has no love for the media, and after decades of his running Sundance I can’t say I blame him. But the press-bashing feels glib, and Ben’s conscience is truly tested only in a tautly filmed one-on-one interview with
Sarandon’s surrendered lefty. LeBeouf may yet mature into an American James McAvoy — a charismatically spineless leading man — but Sarandon and her character have him and his character for lunch.
The third act is a letdown, with a 180-degree emotional coming-about on the part of one character and a far-fetched cross-generational plot twist on top of that. And the fact that Nick’s hands may not have gotten dirty in that robbery keeps the film from attaining additional layers of complexity. Even after all these years, Redford can’t not play the hero.
Still, “The Company You Keep” is an improvement — an actual movie with an interest in actual people. The tendency to lecture is still there, but so is a willingness to pose questions: How far would you go for your beliefs? How far is too far? When does being apolitical become an act of cowardice?
All issues worth raising, even in a deck as dramatically stacked as this.