The Company You Keep

Posted: April 26, 2013 at 2:53 a.m.

Young Isabel (Jackie Evancho) takes a call from her on-the-lam dad — a former radical — in Robert Redford’s political thriller The Company You Keep.

I think it must be very difficult for anyone under the age of 40 or so to imagine what it was like in this country at the end of the ’60s. America was polarized by the struggle for civil rights for blacks and other minority groups. On top of that, our government was prosecuting what many thought was a pointless and unjust war in Southeast Asia. The number of U.S. troops involved in Vietnam had risen from 16,000 in 1963 to more than 500,000 in 1968, and, for the first time, network television news nightly broadcast horrific images into American living rooms. And, according to Richard Nixon’s 1968 presidential campaign ads, crime in America was growing at an unprecedented rate - “nine times as fast as population.” There were race riots and political assassinations, the University of Texas Tower sniper and Charles Manson’s creepy-crawling minions.

What people who didn’t live through the era can’t really understand was the very real sense that the American center couldn’t hold, that our country was about to fly apart, that a violent revolution of some sort seemed inevitable. Protest groups became militarized - the Black Panthers, the Symbionese Liberation Army and the Weather Underground.

The Weather Underground was essentially a militant splinter group of the SDS - “Students for Democratic Society,” an anti-war group with presences on college campuses nationwide. They took their name from a line in Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues” (“You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows”). They advocated the violent overthrow of the U.S. government, with the ultimate goal of ending global imperialism and establishing “world communism.”

From this distance, it’s dangerously easy to look back on the Weathermen and other radical groups with something like wistful nostalgia - but we should remember, they were dangerous people. They blew up things, and some of them died. Though they officially disbanded in 1973, in 1981, a group of former Weathermen were involved in a bank robbery in which three innocent people were killed.

That incident seems to be the inspiration for Robert Redford’s unapologetically earnest The Company You Keep, a drama about septuagenarian radicals who have been living underground for years. After a housewife (Susan Sarandon) is arrested by FBI agents in upstate New York, she’s revealed to be Sharon Solarz, one of the former radicals involved in a bank robbery. A self-regarding reporter at the Albany Sun Times named Ben Shepard (Shia LaBeouf) quickly makes the link between the outed Solarz and Jim Grant (Redford), a widower who has maintained a low-key law practice in the area for the past 30 years or so.

Just as Shepard (and the FBI) realize that Grant is really Nick Sloan, Solarz’ former confrere in the Weather Underground and a suspect in the same robbery she has gone down for, he makes a run for it, depositing his young daughter with his brother (Chris Cooper) in New York, and lighting out for the Midwest, where he will reconnect with a wonderful old gang of overqualified actors - including Richard Jenkins as a professor apparently based on Bill Ayres, Nick Nolte as a mumbling contractor with a past, Brendan Gleeson as a lawman with much to lose and Julie Christie as the old flame - as he attempts to find the one unreconstructed old radical who can clear his name.

Redford’s direction feels tighter and and less ruminative than it has in years, and his acting is still marked by a kind of intelligent alertness. And LaBeouf is bearable for the first time in a while as a callow, careerist who seemingly can’t conceive of a time when people risked important things for principle. While the plot is a bit of a jumble, and the end rushes up a little too quickly and conveniently, the overall effect is fairly satisfying. Though there will be plenty who will object to the movie on purely political grounds, Redford makes a case for his generation’s civil disobedience while acknowledging that - as Nixon’s press secretary Ron Ziegler said of the Watergate break in - “mistakes were made.”

The Company You Keep 87 Cast: Robert Redford, Shia LaBeouf, Julie Christie, Richard Jenkins, Nick Nolte, Stanley Tucci, Brit Marling, Susan Sarandon, Chris Cooper, Anna Kendrick, Brendan Gleeson, Stephen Root, Sam Elliot Director: Robert Redford Rating: R, for language Running time:125 minutes

MovieStyle, Pages 31 on 04/26/2013