Company You Keep: Redford's Disappointing Thriller

The best element of Robert Redford’s new political melodrama, “The Company You Keep,” is its glorious cast, headed by Redford himself (doing double duty). The

ensemble includes, in no particular order, Nick Nolte, Julie Christie, Susan Sarandon, Sam Elliott, Richard Jenkins, and Brendan Gleeson.


In theory, this two-generation-look at an era of political turmoil in American history sounds intriguing. But the screenplay is so flawed, and the direction so restrained (if not stale), that overall, the movie is a major artistic disappointment–call it an honorable failure.

As it stands, “The Company You Keep” is too middle-of-the road to qualify as a poignant drama, too tame to qualify as a political thriller, too detached to generate any interest beyond the curiosity of seeing a dozen of the best actors working in the American cinema appearing (and being wasted) in the same film.

Though known for his liberal and democratic politics, it needs to be said that, at the height of the Vietnam War and anti-War movement, Redford, then at the peak of his stardom and popularity, made largely non-political commercial films. Indeed, with the exception of “The Candidate,” in 1972, Redford the actor-star appeared twice with Paul Newman, in the revisionist but kitschy and light Western, “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” in 1969, the 1973 Oscar-winner “The Sting,” “The Great Gatsby” in 1974. Some may consider “The Way We Were” a political movie, but for me, it’s a schmaltzy melodrama whose major merit is the charismatic presence of Barbra Streisand (who sings the melodic title tune), not Redford.

While Redford is well cast as an actor here, playing Jim Grant, a public interest lawyer and single father raising his daughter in the suburbs of Albany, New York, he may be the wrong director for such a political saga. I have met and interviewed Redford several times, and in 2002 moderated a panel, “Politics and Cinema,” which he initiated and participated in. It’s hard to think of a director or star who’s more lucid, alert, articulate, and vibrant. And yet when it comes to making movies, Redford is behind such dull pictorial efforts as “A River Runs Through It,” in 1992, or “”The Legend of Beggar Vance,” which wasted the talents of both Matt Damon and Will Smith.

Hollywood has refrained from making overtly political films for fear of their divisive impact. In 1988, Sidney Lumet, a bolder, more overtly political director than Redford, essayed this terrain with “Running on Empty,” with Christine Lahti and Judd Hirsch as revolutionary parents of River Phoenix (who deservedly received a Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for his part, as the youngster, who wants to resume normal life, tired of running).

In “The Company You Keep,” Grant’s world is turned upside down, when an aggressive and ambitious journalist, Ben Shepard (Shia LaBeouf) exposes his true identity as a former 1970s anti-war radical fugitive, who’s wanted for murder.

How did it happen? It turns out a woman named Sharon Solarz (Sarandon), a former member of the Weather Underground decides to turn herself in to the FBI for a crime (a botched bank robbery) committed three decades ago.

Having lived for three decades underground, Grant must now go on the run. Indeed, with the FBI in pursuit, he hits the road, setting off on a cross-country journey to track down the one person who can clear his name from suspicion that he was responsible for the murder of one of the bank’s guards.

Realizing the merits of the national news story exposed by him, he brash Shepard sees it as an opportunity of a lifetime. Fame-seeking, he is willing to do everything and anything to capitalize on it—carpe diem.

Shepard begins a thorough research into Grant’s political past. Despite warnings from his editor and threats from the FBI, he relentlessly and obsessively tracks Grant across the country. Meanwhile, Grant reopens old wounds that are still sore decades later. He reconnects with former members of his anti-War group, the Weather Underground.

After an intriguing build-up in the first reel, “The Company You Keep” loses dramatic momentum, failing to fulfill expectations as a political thriller, or suspenseful melodrama, or even a road movie.

Shepard’s realization, that “something” about Grant simply does not add, is predictable and comes too late; the audience is ahead of the presumably alert and bright reporter.

In the end, the revelations that Shepard uncovers, meant to be shocking secrets kept by Grant for over 30 years, are not shocking to anyone familiar with the genre and the era.

We keep waiting for the personal confrontation between Grant and Shepard, which finally occurs in the wilderness of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. And when this face-to-face occurs, forcing each member to come to terms with his true self and reality, it represents an anti-climax, to say the least.

If memory serves, this is the ninth feature of Redford as a director. Redford choose interesting subjects for his films, but their execution leaves much to be desired, as was evident in his last feature, “The Conspirator,” another explicitly political films that was dismissed by most critics.

In my view, of the nine Redford-directed films, only two are satisfying: His very first, “Ordinary People,” in 1980, for which he won the Best Picture and Best Director Oscars, and “Quiz Show,”” in 1994, for which he was Oscar=nominated as director.

“The Company You Keep” suffers from the same problem that inflicts the whole sub-genre of so-called American political films: The socio-political commentary serves as a backdrop to the more central personal story. It doesn’t help that in Redford’s picture, neither personal nor political stories of the two protagonists is compelling.

I am torn in dismissing this picture because not many political movies are being made these days, and I respect Redford as an actor and guru of the New American Independent Cinema.

Let’s just say that if there was an award for the best-cast film of the year, “The Company You Keep” would qualify as top contender.