“We were a peace movement, for Crissake!” Jim Grant, a former 60s radical back on the run from the FBI after decades underground, turns for help to his rival, antagonist, and friend from his college days, Professor Jed Lewis, a one-upon-a-time campus activist now a celebrity academic who wants nothing to do with him or their shared past in The Company You Keep, directed by Robert Redford with Redford as Grant and Richard Jenkins as Lewis leading an ensemble of great character actors and stars playing against type in a group portrait of people bound together by a decades-old crime.
Early in Robert Redford’s often thrilling but not all that political political thriller, The Company You Keep, Susan Sarandon, as a once-upon-a-time 60s radical recently arrested after thirty-odd years underground, tries to explain herself to a hotshot young newspaper reporter come to interview her in jail. She begins her attempt to make him understand why she did what she did all those years ago and why she’s done what she’s now done by asking him if he has children. The reporter, Ben Shepard (played by Shia LaBeouf), grins a calculatedly charming self-deprecating grin you know he’s applied to have patented and is working on bottling for sale. “I barely have furniture,” he says.
It's a revealing line. Not so much of his character. For Shepard it's just a reflexive joke. It doesn't mean much. He's caught up in the fun and excitement of being a hotshot young reporter. He's not given any real thought to marriage, family, or his future beyond the next big scoop, and he's not about to start thinking about any of that now, not while he's in the middle of chasing this scoop, at any rate. But one of the themes of The Company You Keep is that having children makes conservatives of us all. This being a movie directed by Robert Redford, conservative means law-abiding, job-holding, tax-paying decent-minded, do-gooding liberals working within the system to make it better as opposed to radicals and revolutionaries working to destroy it from outside.
Sarandon plays Sharon Solarz, a now wife and mother of two college-aged children who as a die-hard member of the Weathermen more than a generation ago took part in a bank robbery during which a security guard was shot and killed. The FBI has been looking for her and her accomplices for decades. One of those accomplices, the actual shooter, is long dead. Another, the gang’s leader of the moment, Mimi Lurie, has gone so deep underground that none of her former friends in Weather know where to even begin to look for her. But the third, Nick Sloan, Mimi’s lover at the time, has been hiding in plain sight, living as a lawyer named Jim Grant near Albany, New York, and in the course of investigating Solarz’ story, Shepard stumbles on a connection between her and Grant and it doesn’t take him long to figure out that that connection is something more than that of lawyer to potential client. And it doesn’t take Grant long to figure out that Shepard has him figured out. Sloan has been so successful at building a new identity for himself---one that besides a semi-public law career includes a late-in-life family. His wife has recently died, leaving him the sixty-something single father of a still grieving and emotionally fragile eleven year old daughter---that he no longer thinks of himself as Sloan.
But there’s something else he’s never thought of himself as.
He wasn’t in on the robbery. That day Mimi had borrowed his car for the getaway and when the police found it after she’d abandoned of course they found Sloan’s fingerprints all over it and assumed he was the getaway driver. But not only was he not there, by that time, Sloan had already distanced himself politically and morally from the Weathermen. The only reason he was still in the picture at all was Mimi. He was hanging around out of love for her and for the sake of the someone else.
But even though Grant doesn’t think of himself as Nick Sloan, he has never stopped thinking of himself as a fugitive who might have to go back on the run at any moment. He has always had plans for escape and when he realizes Shepard is about to expose him, he puts one of those plans into motion. His intention, however, isn’t to disappear. It’s to finally clear his name so he can keep his life as Jim Grant, not just for his own sake but the sake of his daughter who he knows isn’t up to losing a second parent in the course of a year.
Grant, then, is on a rescue mission to save his daughter. He’s running to chase down the one person who can vouch for his innocence, and while he’s chasing Mimi, Shepard, chasing his big scoop, chases after him.
The politics and history of the 1960s and 70s are important to the backgrounds of the main characters, but they’re not important to the movie. It’s a given that the war in Vietnam was immoral but also as a given that the Weathermen’s efforts to “bring the War home” were inexcusable and a betrayal of the anti-war movement’s principles. As one of Grant’s rivals for campus leadership and Mimi’s affections back in the day (Richard Jenkins in a brilliant cameo) exasperatedly reminds him, “We were a peace movement, for Crissake!” But The Company You Keep spends little time rehashing those old debates. Politics is the Maguffin, the excuse for the chase. The Company You Keep is a chase movie, and a pretty exciting chase movie at that. In parts it’s as exciting as The Fugitive and Redford's own Three Days of the Condor and Spy Game.
But the chase is itself a Maguffin, the excuse to paint serial portraits of people haunted individual and particular ways by their part in a crime. That the crime had a political nature only matters in that it lets them and us avoid thinking of Grant and Mimi and Solarz and their old friends and associates as run of the mill criminals and murderers. The Company You Keep is about the company they kept and, out of love, loyalty, and complicity, still keep despite the distances of time and space that appear to have separated them.
As Grant/Sloan, Robert Redford is at the center of the film, but as director the main job he’s given himself as actor is to lead the camera into scenes with his many co-stars and hold it there while they deliver the real goods. Redford mostly just has to convince us he’s thinking his way through the problem of being on the run again and that he’s smart enough to stay one step ahead of Shepard and two steps ahead of the FBI.
Playing smart has always been one of his Redford’s strengths.
Back in the day, people thought Redford was unconvincing as Bob Woodward because he was too handsome to be a newspaper reporter. All these years later, now that we know Woodward better, Will Ferrell's performance as Woodward in Dick seems more true to life than Redford's in All the President's Men. Redford is unconvincing because he seems too smart.
Redford has often seemed too smart for the characters he's played. He has infused characters, who played by other actors wouldn't have been as smart, might even have been dumb, with a surprising and complicating intelligence making them not so much too smart for their own good but smart to their own perplexing. They know enough to know they should know more and suspect they would be happier knowing less. Sundance, Jay Gatsby, Hubbell Gardner. Even Bill McKay.
That intelligence is a problem here. It's not that the likes of Bernadine Dorn and Bill Ayers weren't smart. They were very smart. But they were also dumb in the way very smart people can be dumb, especially very smart young people who are also vain, egotistical, careless, and full of self-righteous purpose. They could persuade themselves that they were always smart, smart about everything, and therefore any idea they had must be a good idea. Smart as he can play it, Redford doesn’t come across as smart enough in that way to have been dumb enough in that way. But there's another, offsetting quality to Redford's screen persona, a degree of passivity. Many of his characters are temperamentally drifters, carried along by whatever current they've happened to fall into until taken into tow by more active and driven personalities.
“No, don't change. You're your own girl, you have your own style.”
“But then I won't have you. Why can't I have you?”
“Because you push too hard, every damn minute. There's no time to ever relax and enjoy living. Every things too serious to be so serious.”
“If I push too hard it's because I want things to be better, I want us to be better, I want you to be better. Sure I make waves you have I mean you have to. And I'll keep making them till you’re everything you should be and will be. You'll never find anyone as good for you as I am, to believe in you as much as I do or to love you as much.”
"You know what you are, Paul? You're a watcher. There are watchers in this world and there are doers. And the watchers sit around watching the doers, do. Well, tonight you watched, and I did. "
"Well, it was a lot harder watching what you did than it was for you to do what I was watching!"
"You keep thinking, Butch. That's what you're good at."
"I got vision and the rest of the world wears bifocals."
Something to keep in mind when picturing his Gatsby standing at the edge of his lawn and feeling the pull of the green light the end of Daisy's dock.
Maybe I'd have felt there was if Mimi had been played by someone else. Mimi is supposed to be the one still carrying the flame, the one who has not, at least in her own mind, made concessions to time, age, or history. And I can think of two of Redford's former leading ladies who’d have fit the bill perfectly.
The late Nathalie Wood would have been ideal. But, now, since she was already on hand, Susan Sarandon would have been fine in the part. (Sarandon was never one of his leading ladies but she was a minor love interest. Quick. Without checking Imdb. Name the movie.) Instead it's Julie Christie playing what is more or less the femme fatale from Grant's and the other old men's shared past, and as wonderful as it always is to see Christie on screen, she's just too cool and aloof for a former planter of bombs and robber of banks and current smuggler of pot still breaking the law in the name of the Revolution.
Redford himself almost saves the day here. We might not quite believe Christie’s Mimi was ever the force of nature who made smart men stupid enough to rob banks and plant bombs with her, but Redford makes us believe his Grant is the type of romantic who would do almost anything for the women he loves. (Something else to think about when thinking about his Gatsby.) Anything but something really, really stupid, which, as it turns out, is to the point.
All this, though, is by way of an aside to talking about the Redford who really matters to The Company You Keep. Redford the director.
Somebody somewhere must have done a study of the influences on Redford’s work as a director of the directors he’s acted for, including George Roy Hill, Sydney Pollack, Alan Pakula, and Lasse Hallstrom, all of whose lessons pop up throughout The Company You Keep. But I think just as important to Redford’s directing style is his time spent as an aspiring painter. Before he turned to acting, Redford studied at the Pratt Institute of Art and lived the artist’s life in Paris, and it’s a painter’s eye that guides his camera. I don’t mean he thinks in terms of pretty pictures. I mean he works in illustrations. His films are series of still lifes, landscapes, street scenes, single and small group portraits, and genre paintings. He creates people-scapes. He knows how to see his way through a crowd. Large groups of people aren’t masses in motion for him, they are forms arranged around what we need to find or follow.
Movies are stories told in pictures. Redford likes to tell stories within pictures.
There’s a shot of Sarandon in profile that perfectly translates into an image a line from the Neil Gordon novel the movie is based on---“Sharon Solarz, in person, was a handsome woman with thick black hair and a face that had aged hard, bringing out a certain pugnacity that would not, in my opinion, sit well with a jury.”---and a single shot of Redford and Richard Jenkins as a former student radical turned celebrity academic sitting on a bench in an art gallery tells us the whole story of these characters’ past rivalry, current animosity, and permanent bond of sympathy, loyalty, and respect. And something similar is at work when LaBeouf’s reporter confronts Brendan Gleeson as a former FBI agent strangely indifferent to the solution of a case he began his career investigating. He looms over LaBeouf like a wall of integrity, honesty, and secrecy Shepard can’t climb, break through, or get around, the only motion on Gleeson’s part the potential motion of his character’s picking up the reporter and tossing him off the dock they’re standing on.
Often there’s not a lot of movement in a single shot but there’ll still be a lot going on. Redford creates tension through juxtapositions of shapes and shadows and he can imply an awful lot of motion simply by a small disturbance in the stillness: The distant, solitary figure of Joe Mondragon scrambling up a dusty hill in The Milagro Beanfield War. The flick of Paul’s wrist and then the curling through space of his fly and line in A River Runs Through It. A finger pinning down the corner of a newspaper and then slowly dragging it across a countertop in The Company You Keep.
As an actor Redford has always had a good ear and an excellent sense of timing, and he brings both to his work as a director. And he has a knack for putting together ensembles of great character actors and stars cast against type. Besides Sarandon, Christie, Jenkins, and Gleeson, The Company You Keep features features finely tuned, low-key performances by Terrence Howard as the implacable FBI agent chasing Grant, Stanley Tucci as Shepard's tough-talking but easily talked over and around editor, Chris Cooper as Grant 's doctor brother manipulated into having to make the sort of choice between what's lawful and what's right he avoided having to make back when he and his brother were in college and Grant's radicalism was tearing their family apart, and Stephen Root as a former pot farmer turned organic grocer who can 't seem to believe his current business is legal any more than he could believe his former one was illegal.
My favorite, though, and possibly for sentimental reasons, is Nick Nolte as Grant's best friend from college who, even though they haven't seen each other in decades, is still cheerfully loyal and happily willing to risk everything to help his old friend in whatever way he can.
I got a special kick out of seeing Nolte and Redford together because I've always believed Nolte's career took off when some producer said, Get me a Redford type only one who looks like he'd be a little slower on the uptake and quicker to reach for a drink or a joint or to throw a punch.
The two have a nearly wordless scene together in a diner that sums up the dynamic of their characters' friendship and made me look forward to their upcoming pairing in the adaptation of Bill Bryson's A Walk in the Woods which I'd been mildly dreading.
But for me the most remarkable and surprising performance is LaBeouf's. I'd given up expecting him to follow through on the promise he showed in The Greatest Game Ever Played. This is the most relaxed I've seen him on screen since Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. In everything that's followed he's looked tense and headachy as if trying desperately to hear himself think through the din of The Transformers movies still pounding in his ears. But here it's as if the noise has finally faded and, able to concentrate again at last, he's not only remembered how to act but how acting can be fun.
It's also as if Redford has reminded him that there are other ways to be a leading man besides trying to be Harrison Ford Jr or, for that matter, a darker Robert Redford. Or, rather, that the way to be like Ford or Redford is to not take himself too seriously.
LaBeouf is clearly having a good time playing Shepard as one of those annoyingly self-infatuated young men who enter every conversation convinced it won't be very long before you start finding them as charming as they find themselves. These types are even more annoying when it turns out they're right. Shepard isn't half as adorable as he thinks you'll think he is, but he's adorable enough that a shy smile, a deliberately clumsy witticism, a widening of his big Bambi eyes will usually cause a source to open up, a boss to surrender, an old girlfriend to forgive and forget, and a potential new girlfriend to become very curious about what she'll be expected to forgive and forget.
It’s not surprising that he’s come to think of journalism as a contest between himself and a source, that good reporting is a matter of turning up the charm, and that point of getting a story is the he got it.
LaBeouf's Shepard comes across as heartless and careless, thanks, apparently, to an excess of vanity, ego, and ambition. And he is vain, egotistical, and ambitious. But so are most talented twentysomethings enjoying the fruits of early success. Shepard's real problem is that he has never had reason to question what he does professionally. As far as he knows, just being good at his job makes him one of the good guys. (Maybe it's an idea he picked up from movies like All the President's Men.) Very few stories come a reporter's way that will, if reported honestly and fully, ruin innocent people's lives. By the time the reporter gets there with an open notebook, those lives have already been ruined. The cars have crashed, the houses have burned, the shots have been fired, the bodies have fallen, and the cops have moved in.
Shepard is about to learn that there are other kinds of stories---and more to every kind of story---that can't be told honestly and fully in a newspaper. Reporters who learn that lesson too well quit and become David Simon.
The Company You Keep is Jim Grant’s advernture, but it’s Ben Shepard’s story in that, this time, getting the story means getting the point, at last.
For one of Redford’s best peoplescapes, see the scene in The Conspirator in which Lincoln’s body is carried out of Ford’s Theatre and through the crowd to the house where he will lie on what will be his deathbed. Here’s my review of that one.
And here’s my review of The Guard, an Irish comic thriller that stars Brendan Gleeson as a very different sort of lawman than he plays in The Company You Keep.
The Company You Keep, directed by Robert Redford, screenplay by Lem Dobbs, based on the novel by Neil Gordon. Starring Robert Redford, Shia LaBeouf, Susan Sarandon, Terrence Howard, Chris Cooper, Richard Jenkins, Sam Elliott, Stanley Tucci, Brendan Gleeson, Stephen Root, Julie Christie, and Nick Nolte. Now in selected theaters.