Perhaps the legacy of Robert Redford’s The Company You Keep (2013), a movie about the emotional collateral amassed among aging ex-members of the Weather Underground terrorist group, is the same as that of the group itself. These were talented and engaged men and women who threw their lives away in the service of tactics that at best derailed their cause and at worst took the lives of innocent people. The Company You Keep includes, perhaps, the most impressive cast of the year, but they are wasting their time on a misguided project that’s beneath them and beneath the people in the audience.
Is it offensive to equate the pity of collecting a talented group of actors together for a bad movie to the collection of terrorists who bombed buildings and shot cops in the name of political change? I think it is. I also think it’s offensive to make one of those terrorists, quite unrepentant, one of your heroes in your movie and give as his counterpart an unethical reporter who isn’t interested in the truth as much as his byline. That’s what The Company You Keep provided and, I don’t know, I didn’t enjoy it very much.
The movie stars Redford as Nick Grant, the former terrorist, who was involved in a bank robbery–murder thirty years ago as a member of Weather Underground and has been in hiding ever since, changing his name and starting a new life as an upstate New York lawyer, recently widowed with an eleven-year-old daughter, Isabel (Jackie Evancho, the popular child singer, making her film debut). When one of his confederates is found by the Feds, a cynical self-serving reporter for the local paper, Ben Shepard (Shia LaBeouf) begins to poke around and discovers Grant’s past, forcing him to go on the run. Grant visits a number of his old pals, each of whom are living under assumed names and feeling varying levels of remorse—very few are sorry about what they did, just sorry that they might get caught. These include Susan Sarandon, Nick Nolte, Richard Jenkins, Sam Elliott and Julie Christie.
Grant is being nominally pursued by the FBI, by agents played by Terrence Howard and Anna Kendrick, but his real deerstalker is Shepard, who does good work for the Albany Sun-Times, cracking a case in a matter of days that the Bureau has been working on for decades. It’s clear that Shepard is sympathetic to Grant’s cause, but is more sympathetic to his own interests, and he uses every dirty trick to gain access to the story he believes will make him. Shepard’s investigation casts doubt on Grant’s guilt (in this particular incident) and we are meant to feel for the infirm insurgents who the mean government just won’t let alone.
This is a baffling movie, one whose politics and morality are all over the place and whose emotional arc is so disjointed it can hardly be registered. It’s clear that we are meant to be in affinity with Grant, shamelessly exploiting the precarious future of his daughter as a grab for sympathy, but that’s a tough sell given Grant’s association with a group that used destruction and terror as its defining characteristics, especially when Grant regrets so little. It reminded me of If A Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front (2011), a documentary I’ve been outspoken on my distaste for, which seemed to miss the point that actions have consequences and that there is no statute of limitations on terror. If A Tree Falls chronicled the impending incarceration of a man involved in a group that used arson as a means for environmental awareness. He thinks it’s unfair that he has to leave his wife and family to serve time for something he feels he was justified in doing. The movie agrees with him.
Most of the people in The Company You Keep share a similar view. True, they were members of a group that bombed the Capitol andthe Pentagon, but that was a long time ago and was in response to the war, man—why does the government have to keep coming around to harsh the buzz? I have a low tolerance for that idea. Some characters call out the lunacy, but these instances are the definition of lip service and are all delivered by characters we are apathetic to in the context of the story. Certainly the misanthropic Shepard sees the honor in the Weatherman’s agenda. Grant tells him that, were he three decades older, a smart guy like him would have been part of the movement, as if that’s a compliment, and Shepard listens to his interviewee’s apologist justifications in rapt wonder.
The Shepard character represents the real problem with the movie. It’s more than acceptable to have a flawed protagonist you are propping up as a hero, even a reprehensible one, but if you are going to give him an opposite, it’s better to make that person adversarial and less sycophantic, or at least have them learn something from each other. In fact, neither character makes much of a change at all throughout the movie; they get only what they want—absolution and notoriety, respectively. Think of the relationship in The Fugitive (1993) between Harrison Ford’s character and Tommy Lee Jones’. Ford was an innocent man on the run from Jones’ dogged pursuer with an obligation to his charge first and the truth second. That relationship works because neither actor exists in the cult of his counterpart; they force each other to respect each other but never forget the other’s aim, which is clear and rigid. I’m not sure what Shepard’s aim is; it goes from fame, to benevolence from a man he admires, to romance (which is pointless and shoehorned), to fame. He doesn’t learn anything from Grant nor does he expand Grant’s character in any way; he’s simply a plot device, a way to keep the movie going, and why he had to be so distasteful just for that, I don’t know.
It’s hard for me to believe I could get behind The Company You Keep because of its worldview, but it’s filmmaking is also poor, stolid and uninteresting. It’s shallowly engaging to see so many top-flight actors appear in a movie (Stanley Tucci, Brendan Gleeson and Chris Cooper also show up), but nobody is given much to do and so their characters become redundant. Some of the problems that bedeviled Redford’s Lions for Lambs (2007) are present here as well, mainly the distillation of characters into walking representations of their own agendas. These aren’t people, they’re types, espousing vague and irresponsible moralistic prattle about the sanctity of change by explosion. Only one section crackles, a confrontation between Grant and Christie’s character, who were once lovers, in a secret hideaway in the woods. The tone here is penitent for the first time and made me think of a similar cabin shared by Joe Christmas and Joanna Burden. A good movie could have been made out of these moments between people who have lived their mistake-laden lives, in which too much time has passed to start over but they still may be able to provide a little warmth for each other. Sadly, it’s the only warmth we get.