I admit I was concerned about how Robert Redford would present the politics of The Weathermen and the life of the lefties who went underground in the 70s in his film The Company You Keep. But with the impressive cast he had assembled, I figured that I’d go for the acting.
Redford directs this flawed film – which he has built to focus excessively on his own character, Jim Grant. In fact, Redford hogs this film and if he could act that might be okay. But in fact he is wooden and stilted and he fails to stir sympathy, let alone empathy. He uses the cast’s many big stars as props for himself, when he is by far the least talented actor among them. Each new star in their cameo has a more or less interesting but very temporary part to play.
Beyond a superficial and clichéd approach to Weatherman politics, there are three glaring problems. First, Redford fails to connect emotionally or intellectually with anyone. Second, his physical presence is excruciatingly awkward and the scenes of him jogging all stiff of body and limp of arm made me cringe. And third, the various story lines are never pursued, leaving copious holes in the narrative.
A radical collective robbed a bank. A guard was killed and one collective member did time for that, while others went underground for decades, not all of them guilty. All, except the persistently radical Julie Christie, built bourgeois home lives and careers. As Mimi Lurie, Christie plays the only character who has maintained a grain of the rebel.
Susan Sarandon opens the film. Her character’s decision to turn herself in is crucial to the story but once arrested we see her just one more time, when she decides she is only willing to talk to the reporter Ben Shepard, played by Shia LaBeouf in the manner of a young, junior Robert Redford – say of Watergate ilk. This character is Redford’s co-star, and the camera is much kinder to LaBeouf. When she is pouring out her story to this kid (we never know why she picked him), the police, apparently out of jealousy that she is talking to him not them (although they are listening in and watching through the two-way mirror) stop the interview and we never see her again.
Same with Nick Nolte and Stanley Tucci and Richard Jenkins and Sam Elliott: they turn up long enough to interact with Redford a bit and to reinforce Redford’s incapacity to connect emotionally with anyone. Then they evaporate from the film. As the head FBI agent, Terrence Howard has a continuing but uninteresting role.
Here’re some bothersome details, many pointed out to me by my companion at the film. Everyone has perfect cell and internet connectivity, even way out in the woods. Laptops load instantly. The ages of the characters don’t match the story line. Redford has a big Reebok symbol on his jacket. Product placement in a film about the Weathermen?!
In the end, almost every single important narrative line is left unresolved. I can’t point to them without giving away too much, but this lack of clarity makes it impossible to understand anyone’s motivation – starting with Susan Sarandon turning herself in. “The kids were old enough,” really doesn’t cut it. Children, in fact, are supposedly oh so important to these characters, but there isn’t a spark of affection in the bunch. Forming a nuclear family is held up as a sign of having grown up – that is to say, of having given up (immature) activism.
Redford couldn’t decide whether he was making an action film, a political film, or a vanity film. In the end, except for Redford’s character we don’t get to know anyone well enough to care about them – and he is gracelessly unlovable.
Here's a trailer: