Like Clint Eastwood, Robert Redford makes a show of aging in public; every time he appears in one of his own movies, there’s a sense of the audience being enlisted into mutual coping with the fact of his having gotten older—reward for which is the director-star’s pledge of conscientious and continuous brand management. Also like Eastwood (in film at least), Redford tends to flaunt liberal righteousness, although in his case, it’s to prove he’s still got it, not to prove he actually gets it.
Redford’s new thriller seems pleasingly to share some DNA with his old thrillers —the ones he starred in, like Three Days of the Condor, and All the President’s Men, and for that matter, even Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Certainly he’s in his element calling shots both in front of and behind the camera in The Company You Keep, a movie about outlaws and aging lefty crusaders coming to terms with their legacies.
In this case, that means a posse of militant antiwar activists, far removed from their Vietnam War-era heyday and now living variously as fugitives (albeit typically in relative bourgeois comfort). Redford seems plausible enough as the seasoned-movie-star version of a former Weather Undergrounder who’s made a new life for himself as an upstanding progressive attorney—only to see that life spun suddenly out of control by the relentless wheels of justice.
For reasons that need not be explained here—mostly because it seems to mean a lot to the movie to be able explain them itself—Redford’s character winds up on the run, dodging the feds and tending to some urgent unfinished business with an old flame, now a pot runner in Big Sur, played by Julie Christie. Hot on his trail is a tenacious young journalist played by Shia LaBeouf in clever-guy glasses and an old-school-muckraker pose. Generally, this all plays better than description alone might suggest. In one scene, for instance, the reporter proudly announces that he doesn’t use Twitter, and it’s to the movie’s credit that we might interpret this unlikely contrarian stance as its own kind of callow ignorance. (Christie’s character eventually has a moment of logic contradiction, too, but hers isn’t as easy to buy.)
Otherwise, Lem Dobbs’ script, adapted from Neil Gordon’s novel, is intelligent and only just slightly speechifying. It’s what some people might call a movie for grown-ups, with all the slightly defensive superiority that implies. A huge roster of strong supporting players includes Chris Cooper, Brendan Gleeson, Richard Jenkins, Susan Sarandon, Sam Elliott, Stanley Tucci, Anna Kendrick, Stephen Root, Terrence Howard, Brit Marling, and even Nick Nolte. The movie roams among them fondly but hurriedly, like the happy couple at a wedding with too many guests; if there’s never quite enough time to visit with everybody, or figure out the relationships between them, at least they all seem glad and honored to be here for this special occasion—a good old-fashioned ensemble thriller, and a Robert Redford picture besides.
It should be noted, without prejudice, that this is not the place to go for a thorough retrospective history of the Weather Underground. (For that, try Sam Green’s 2002 documentary, The Weather Underground.) And there are hints at what might have been a more daring movie, as in an early scene in which Sarandon’s erstwhile radical, now under arrest, explains her long-ago involvement in a robbery that left a bank guard dead —an explanation which Kendrick’s FBI upstart mockingly recaps: “I was just young, female and opposing injustice? That was offensive.” Both women compel our curiosity, as does the explicitly generational conflict between them, but unfortunately, this film just can’t afford to get into that.
And although The Company You Keep seems gradually to tire of chewing on all it has bitten off, one senses its maker’s respect for principled people of any generation. The subtext—“Listen, kids, there was a time in this country when activists acted and reporters reported!”—seems sufficiently restrained. There was that time, and now there are consequences to face, and to acknowledge as much is one way of aging gracefully.