The thing I love about Robert Redford movies is how insightful and opinionated they are, never existing as just a bland surface experience. I’m not only talking about his directorial efforts with that statement either, I’m talking about anything the man is really involved in. Sure, there are some duds which are blemishes on his illustrious career, but no actor can avoid that, and most other projects he’s worked on are rich with subtext and provide insight on their topics.
The Company You Keep is no different from the better work he’s participated in, offering a thought-provoking take not only on the storied history of The Weather Underground, but the hard-hitting and morally ambiguous world of journalism – which of course sparked my interest.
Following the story of Jim Grant (Robert Redford), we watch as his past as a Weather Underground activist comes back to haunt him, prompting a nationwide journey in order to set his name straight. His identity is found out by a persistant young journalist named Ben Shepard (Shia LaBeouf) though, as he sets out to follow Grant and get an exclusive story that could grant him public recognition.
While I wasn’t crazy about the story and pacing overall, mostly attributed to some slower portions where excitement just couldn’t be achieved, casting couldn’t have been more spot on.
Redford didn’t shy away from “action” at the spry young age of 76, but don’t expect him to be going Senior 007 or anything. By action I mean there’s a few scenes of him running away from whatever character might be chasing him, but it’s still immensely impressive to see Redford still actively participating in the roles he takes, not yet ready to be portrayed as a stay-at-home Grandpa or something duller. Redford still has the ability to lead an ensemble cast, and shows so by playing Jim Grant in The Company You Keep in the utmost intellectually stimulating manner while making those actors around him that much better.
Those other actors aren’t chumps either, as Jim Grant’s journey puts him in contact with a who’s who of names from Redford’s generation. Actors like Julie Christie, Susan Sarandon, Nick Nolte, Chris Cooper, Richard Jenkins and Sam Elliot play a collection of people who either participated in The Weather Underground or ignored its existence, all the while giving different viewpoints on past history.
Some characters have ditched their rebellious ways and conformed to big-business America, some can’t let go of the fight, others find a happy medium in between – but all of them show us the different ways past “freedom fighters” cope with growing older, becoming more mature, and picking their places in a country they once either fought or believed in. It’s fascinating to see the different perspectives.
Going down an age bracket, an equally strong cast of “middle-agers” provide a younger look into the Vietnam war times, be it from an FBI agent or a retired police chief. Terrance Howard plays the angry and determined FBI agent hellbent on prosecuting certain members of The Weather Underground, Brendan Gleeson plays the police chief mentioned above, Stanley Tucci is a struggling newspaper manager type, and Stephen Root plays an old friend to The Weather Underground. All are honestly a joy to watch and each bring their typical style to their parts, Howard’s intensity for example, but Tucci’s predicament existed as the most interesting struggle to me.
Being stuck running a written publication has to be a hellish endeavor because while you’d love to run certain pieces and chase stories, it just doesn’t sell anymore. Companies want to be profitable, and publications are run by a company, so Tucci’s character I’m sure is facing immense pressures to forgo investigation into a story on Jim Grant, instead running a generic puff-piece sure to solidify readers and profits. Journalism, it’s not all glitz and glamor like you could imagine!
Now we get to our young cast though, made up of Shia LaBeouf playing a hungry journalist named Ben Shepard, Anna Kendrick as his FBI contact, Brit Marling playing Gleeson’s daughter, and the pint-sized Jackie Evancho as Redford’s daughter. All do a splendid job like the rest of the cast, and Anna Kendrick only solidifies her celebrity crush status with me that much more, but Shia absolutely takes the cake for acting compared not only to these names, but the entire cast.
Shia absolutely nailed the fast-tonged, almost slithery nature most people associate with journalists, badgering witnesses and slinging information without really solidifying a source all just to run an article. He’s young, ambitious, trying to make a name for himself, but learns valuable lessons while chasing the Jim Grant case. Shia brings out that richness I mentioned before that can be found in a Redford movie, showing The Company You Keep‘s commentary on journalism through his energetic and spot-on performance.
Redford’s film falters in keeping consistent pacing though, partly due to Lem Dobb’s preachy screenplay (based on Neil Gordon’s novel) which becomes over-saturated with political ideals and some less than interesting moments. I felt that while all of the characters were acted well, some of the more hippie-like characters were overplayed stereotypes, only living for “sticking it to the man” and raging against the machine – or whatever the kids call it these days. While I’m sure these people exist in real life, some characters felt cartoonish and unbelievable while standing atop their mighty soapbox. This coupled with moments of nagging nothingness and forced family focuses really took an atmospheric chunk out of some scenes, but actors like Shia and Robert are still able to wrestle such negative points to the ground.
While politically heavy, The Company You Keep is another directorial accomplishment by Robert Redford accompanied by a brilliant performance from Shia LaBeouf. While this isn’t Redford’s best work by any means, it will still be a hit among certain crowds willing to invest the time and patience into this slower-paced thriller. If anything, you’ll learn a thing or two about The Weather Underground, and who can turn down a free history lesson?
While The Company You Keep isn't Redford's best work, phenomenal performances heighten the somewhat lacking screenplay.