The Company You Keep Worth Inviting Onto Your DVD Player

THE COMPANY YOU KEEP (2012) –Video Review
Directed by Robert Redford
Sony Pictures Classics, 121 minutes, R (language)
* * * *

The Company You Keep won several prizes at the Venice Film Festival and is one of the better films made about post-Sixties radicals. Chances are good you’ve not seen it. It made a paltry $5.1 million at the U.S. box office. Go to Rotten Tomatoes or IMDB and you’ll find middling to low ratings. So let me get this off my chest right away: This superb film was ignored because of its politics, not because of its lack of merit. That is to say, it doesn’t get down on its knees and beg the Right’s forgiveness for Sixties’ idealism.

Quite the opposite. The film opens with the arrest of Sharon Solarz (Susan Sarandon), a former member of the Weather Underground who is wanted for murder. She’s been hiding in plain sight for decades–as a housewife in Vermont–and the irony of her arrest is that she was on her way to turn herself in when the FBI finally nabbed her. The film is fictional, but the Solarz character is a mash of two very real former 60s political prisoners: former SDS bomb maker Cathy Wilkerson, who submitted to arrest in 1980; and Kathy Boudin, who went to prison in 1984 for her role in a Brinks truck hijacking in which two cops were killed. (Boudin wasn’t at the site; she was supposed to drive the get-away vehicle once robbers ditched their car.) Both Wilkerson and Boudin admitted they did some ill-considered things and Boudin, who served 20 years in prison, claimed it wasn’t part of the plan to hurt anyone and was torn by grief that it happened. What neither of them did was apologize for opposing the government, their desire to change the system, or the validity of their ideals. Sarandon recreates that sentiment in jail where reporter Ben Shepard (Shia LaBeouf) asks if she’d do it all again. She lectures the too-young Shepard on the evils of Vietnam and the government’s war on civil rights leaders. Then she looks him in the eyes and proclaims, “Yes. If I didn’t have kids, I’d do it again.” Well, we all know only the Tea Party is allowed to say things like this about the government.   

What makes The Company You Keep miles better than schmaltzy claptrap like Taking Woodstock, Forrest Gump, or the gadzillions of 60s-rock star films is that it unabashedly deals with politics and isn’t afraid to show that many people still believe the things they professed five decades ago. Those folks aren’t starry-eyed about any of it, but neither do they seek absolution. (Any remorse they feel is on the personal level, not the ones where political and social power reside.) The movie centers on Shepard and Jim Grant (Redford), a widowed attorney who refuses to take the Solarz case or explain to the nosy Shepard why. Shepard digs and discovers that Grant is actually Nick Sloan, a former Weatherman himself wanted for murder, but presumed dead. This sends Jim/Nick scurrying in a mad dash to clear his name and protect his eleven-year-old daughter, Isabel (Jackie Evancho). Nick must stay one step ahead of both Shepard and FBI agent Cornelius (Terence Howard) by drawing upon an underground network that’s still very much intact.

From here it’s pretty much a standard political thriller insofar as the chase goes, but Redford does a terrific job of probing relationships between people who once so thoroughly bonded through idealism that it’s as if their friendships have merely been on a 40-year hiatus. There are terrific cameo roles for gifted actors such as Richard Jenkins, Nick Nolte, Sam Elliott, and the still-striking-after-all-these-years Julie Christie. Kudos also go to Chris Cooper as Nick’s brother, Stanly Tucci as an exasperated editor, and Brendan Gleeson as Henry Osborne, the retired detective who investigated the murder for which Nick is accused. Okay, so maybe Shepard is a bit too intuitive to be believable (or maybe the FBI really is this dumb). Perhaps LaBeouf, Evancho, and Brit Marling (as Osborne’s daughter) come close to setting off “over-precious” alarms, and maybe the film’s resolution is too pat, but the pacing is taut, the dialogue is earnest, and the suspense palpable. Forget what you’ve heard–or didn’t hear–about this film. It’s an intelligent look at the post-Sixties life of former Weathermen and the sort of mature filmmaking we’ve come to expect of Robert Redford, who long ago proved he’s always been more than just a pretty face.  Rob Weir 

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