Robert Redford's political thriller "The Company You Keep"


Robert Redford’s political thriller “The Company You Keep” relies on interesting 60’s characters and smart escape sequences (no special effects) to entertain.

A smart script by Lem Dobbs (‘The Score”, “Kafka”), based on Neil Gordon’s novel, fills the story with aging student revolutionaries portrayed by a a who’s who of the era’s best actors,
 makes for a fulfilling watch. 

If only Redford hadn’t cast himself. He hasn’t aged well (this is what they used to say about actresses) and I felt uncomfortable watching him in this role. He has the chops to play the man of conscious, but the 70-something actor looks wrong in the scenes with his young daughter Isabel (Jackie Evancho).

Elegant cinematography by Brazilian Adriano Goldman (“Sin Nombre”, “Jane Eyre”) a deft edit by Mark Day (The Harry Potter franchise) and a strong production package make for an engrossing old-school pol thriller. Vermonter suburban mother Sharon Solarz (Susan Sarandon), one of four members of The Weathermen who went underground, charged with armed bank robbery and murder, decides to give herself up to the FBI. The FBI prefer a pre-emptive arrest and capture her at a convenience store, led Agent Cornelius (Terrence Howard). Suddenly Solarz and her co-conspirators Mimi Lurie and Nick Sloan are in the news, and the object of a new manhunt.

The Weather Underground were willing to risk everything to end the violence of the Vietnam War and eventually ended up robbing banks and igniting bombs in government buildings. The fictional activists in this story, who’ve gone to ground in lives of quiet desperation, now grapple with forgiveness, guilt and a way to explain their actions to their children. A clever montage, blending archival footage with fake footage, parses the Weather Underground’s split from SDS for a new generation, and provides evidence for the fictional bank robbery.

Solarz’s friend, organic farmer Billy Cusimano (Stephen Root) asks local public interest lawyer Jim Grant (Robert Redford) to take the case, he turns it down, citing the troubles he has raising his young daughter, traumatized by her mother’s accidental death. Grant suggest a political lawyer, a colleague in Chicago, and tries to go back to his quiet life. But young reporter named Ben Shepard (Shia LaBeouf) trying to make his bones at Albany Sun Times, the local newspaper (yes there is a print newspaper) unearths a story that won’t stop giving.

Shepard was MIA, scooped by national news when the arrest happened on his turf. To impress his editor (Stanley Tucci), Ben exploits old flame Diana (Anna Kendrick), now working for the bureau. (Kendrick is great in her too few scenes, as is every person in this marvelous cast.) Diana manages to pull off the impossible, prison access to interview Solarz. The interview scene between ambitious Shepard and battle scarred Solarz trying to explain her political actions to someone from the “Not me” generation is the best in the film. Inciting Ben to rethink the meaning of political commitment sets him on a course that puts him at odds with FBI. Unfortunately, Shepard’s arc is the least developed strand in the script, robbing the final scenes of full impact.

Hot on the story of his life. Shepard travels to the Midwest to look for traces of Solarz’s past life, and a series of connections to other people in the Weather Men circle leads him to the revelation that Jim Grant is Nick Sloan, the third member of the underground “terrorists” charged with the fatal bank holdup. Shepard outs the innocent pro-bono lawyer and spends the rest of the film trying to take responsibility for what he’s done.

Adept at hiding, Sloan has a variety of alternate identities to activate. He outwits the FBI, leaving Isabel with his brother Daniel (Chris Cooper), then goes on the run, searching for old flame Mimi Lurie (Julie Christie), the only one who can clear his name.

Sloan, Lurie Shepard led the FBI on a merry chase that includes some moody revelations, attempts at forgiveness and a surprising domestic secret. Unrepentant, hard-bitten survivor Lurie declined to raise children. She’s landed on her feet in a comfortable life, but is willing to jettison it in heartbeat. Like Solarz, she would do it all again. Only Sloan is not so sure.

Redford’s assembled a terrific ensemble: Sarandon and Christie, and Nick Nolte, Richard Jenkins, Sam Elliot, Stanley Tucci and Chris Cooper, who rather outclass the charismatic LaBeouf.

Nolte plays Donal Fitzgerald, a laid-back acid-burnout lumberyard owner of a lumberyard, Richard Jenkins plays button-down college prof Jed Lewis, who still assigns Franz Fanon to his students, Sam Elliott plays Mimi Lurie’s latest beau. Brendan Gleeson is Henry Osborne, the small town sheriff who was Solarz’s childhood play mate.

Redford shoots a great escape screen in a New York hotel and a fun scene on the train, with Grant evading the police, which recalls train scenes from the 40’s and 50’s. . A reunion with Mimi Lurie (Christie) and Jim Grant is fun for Christie’s banked fires.

It’s not “All the President’s Men”, nor Pollack’s biting “The Three Days of the Condor” but this generation is too removed from the zeitgeist of the 60’s to really get the point. Without that overarching context, the sense of a righteous youth culture fighting America’s oppressive War machine, the writers’ are left with a host of characters with political conviction, and a script that is unable to take a stand. Those thrillers built on the cynicism of an activist generation. Redford’s film seems to make peace with Soccer Moms, counseling bring up the kids over Fight The Power.


About Author

Robin Menken

Robin Menken Robin Menken lives in Los Angeles. She was the Artistic Director of the Second City Workshops, taught at UC Berkeley, USC, Barcelona\'s Ateneu and the Esalin Institute. She was Roberto Rossellini\'s assistant, and worked with Yevgeny Vevteshenku, Glauber Rocha and Eugene Ionesco. She sold numerous screenplays and wrote the OBIE winning The FTA SHow (touring with Jane Fonda, Donald Sutherland and Ben Vereen.) She was a programming consultant and Special Events co-ordinator for numerous film festivals, including the SF, Rio, Havana and N.Y Film Festivals. Her first news outlet was the historic East Village Other.

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