It ain't exactly The Avengers, but The Company You Keep does bring together a few big-screen heroes to show what they can do while they can still do it. Perhaps a more interesting proposition 10 or 20 years ago, the film features Robert Redford, Susan Sarandon, Nick Nolte, Sam Elliott and Julie Christie as former radicals from the revolutionary anti-Vietnam organization the Weather Underground. For good measure, director Redford throws in Chris Cooper, Stanley Tucci and Brendan Gleeson, all of whom are excellent reserves.
The timing of a story about politically motivated bombers is, of course, unfortunate given the recent events in Boston, but the attack on the marathon helps underscore exactly what the Weather Underground did all those years ago. The Weather Underground claimed responsibility for a dozen bombings over four years, including one at the U.S. Capitol and one at the Pentagon. They broke Timothy Leary out of prison and co-founder Bernadine Dohrn wound up on the FBI's 10 Most Wanted list. Although three of the group's members died in an accidental explosion in 1970, none of the bombings resulted in fatalities. These days, the Weather Underground is a website giving you current conditions and a 10-day forecast, indicating how just about anything can be mainstreamed and sanitized.
Although it's fiction, much of The Company You Keep is riffed from the actual history of that group, in one form or another. The great Richard Jenkins has a walk-on role as a professor in Chicago, a tip of the hat to Bill Ayers, whose past sprang back to life in right-wing media during the 2008 Obama campaign. There are details from Ayers' personal life that are suggested, too, through Nick Sloan (Redford), who had successfully avoided detection as upstate New York attorney Jim Grant until fate intervened.
After 30 years of hiding, Sharon Solarz (Susan Sarandon) is picked up by the FBI, creating ripples that lead to Grant. Although nobody knows his true identity yet, Grant is a lawyer for left-leaning causes, and it surprises an enterprising young reporter from Albany when Grant refuses the case. Ben Shepard (Shia LaBeouf) presses Grant on his reasoning, but what he uncovers at first is only the attorney's license plate number. He traces that through public records to find that Grant has only existed for the past 30-odd years. So that's fishy.
Of course, he couldn't have hidden in plain sight all these years without good instincts, so Grant—now outed as Sloan—goes on the run again. As the FBI (led throughout by Terence Howard) tries to pinpoint where he's going and why, Shepard takes a different approach, digging up Sloan's past and former acquaintances to get to the truth. Is Sloan running to avoid capture or to clear his name for a decades-old murder?
You don't hire actors like the ones in this cast so that people don't pay attention to their performances. There are 15 Oscar nominations for acting and three wins among the principals.
But as good as this cast has the potential to be, The Company You Keep is largely in the wrong hands. Redford's direction has never been that great; as a filmmaker he's best remembered for delaying Martin Scorsese's first Oscar by a quarter-century. Yeah, Best Director for Ordinary People over Raging Bull. That's water under the bridge now. But the point is that of his nine films as a director, maybe two show any degree of authorship. The rest are fairly anonymous, certainly for a guy who won an Academy Award for directing his first time out.
It's not so much that Redford's direction is bad; it's just that there are no guts to it and very little point of view. And as someone who has been fairly open about his politics—the same can certainly be said of Sarandon, too—this all feels rather lightweight and procedural. Redford guides the story smoothly from point A to point B through a cascade of clues, but that's about it. It simply doesn't feel inspired.
The film comes at a good time for LaBeouf, whose career has stalled outside of Transformers movies. He holds this together, despite his character being little more than a cog in a wheel who spits out lines like, "I'm a journalist-I'm gonna do what I always do." But his focus is there and he rises above his material. So do Gleeson, Sarandon and Julie Christie. It's only Redford who didn't get the memo.