In The Company You Keep, old radicals never die – they just turn into old actors. Doubling as director and star, Robert Redford keeps some very good company indeed, surrounding himself with a veritable cadre of accomplished veterans – Julie Christie, Nick Nolte, Richard Jenkins, Susan Sarandon among them – who are a delight to watch. And listen to. This is a very chatty script, low on action and long on talk devoted to the yawning gap between yesterday and today – notably, to the erosion of ideals that were never quite ideal in the first place. That’s a big topic with deep roots in the past, and the film itself is a throwback, trying awfully hard to be the sort of grown-up picture that exudes a humane intelligence. You can’t help but applaud the effort, even as it falls short.
The radicals in question were once part of the Weather Underground which, back in the sixties and seventies, extended the protest movement beyond words to violent acts, including the actual bombing of symbolic buildings. During one such act, a bank security guard died, and this fictional yarn opens with a final surrender. After all these years in hiding, Sharon (Sarandon) turns herself over to the FBI. This piques the interest of Ben the ambitious local reporter (Shia LaBeouf), who follows a cold trail that grows hot when it leads to Jim Grant (Redford). Ensconced in his home in Albany, N.Y., he’s a widowed lawyer with a young daughter, although Ben is quick to discover the truth behind the respectable appearance – yes, Jim too is an ex-Weatherman still high on the wanted list.
That discovery prompts him to go on the lam, heading out in search of his former accomplices in ideological crime, all in various stages of metamorphosis. One is a craggy lumber man with a thriving business (Nolte and his gravelly mumble); another is a college prof still preaching the gospel according to Frantz Fanon (Jenkins and his balding pate). Then there’s Mimi, once Jim’s lover and now the most unrepentant of the bunch, living a life of low misdeeds and lofty rhetoric amid the coastal California splendour of Big Sur (Christie and her enduring beauty). So, as the reporter and the feds both chase down Jim, he chases down his demons.
That’s a lot of chasing, and yet this is the least kinetic of films – fans of drawn guns and bloody shootouts will be sorely disappointed. Rather, the story essentially unfolds as a series of conversations, set-piece colloquies that explore the hopes of the past within the context of the present. Like an early exchange between Ben and Jim when, barely staying within character, Redford sounds off on the reckless and Twitter-happy tendencies of the contemporary media, punctuating his rant with an emphatic, “Journalism is dead.” Well, debate that if you will but, coming from the actor who so invigorated the profession in All the President’s Men, the line can’t help but possess a certain sad echo.
But another conversation, when the reporter interviews Sharon behind bars, reveals the script at its expository worst. Sarandon is valiant here, yet even her splendid best can’t prevent an allegedly dramatic scene from descending into a truncated history lesson. Consequently, this sort of clunker, “Kids our own age were being murdered by our government on campuses,” is left to hang in the air, like a speechy caption awaiting its bubble.
Meanwhile, the plot lines – guilty secrets, innocent secrets, 11th-hour conversions, revealed parentage – proliferate wildly and intersect haphazardly, not unlike the myriad creases on Redford’s septuagenarian mug. His add up to an earned wisdom, but the movie’s don’t. Instead, they play like a grasping for importance, an overreaching that is consistently well-performed yet still a stretch.
You may recall Sidney Lumet’s Running on Empty, which covered exactly the same radical-in-hiding territory, suffered from some of the same speechifying faults, but also throbbed with raw energy and emotional immediacy. There, the bleeding heart had a real pulse; here, it’s just a Hallmark valentine with a hallowed message.