Just so we’re all on the same page, I want to put it out there that I’m normally a sucker for these kinds of journalism movies. Throw on All The President’s Men, Network, Shattered Glass, Anchorman, and even lesser films like State of Play and Scoop (plus, Netflix’s terrific new series “House of Cards” and the fifth season of HBO’s legendary show “The Wire”) and I’m hooked. The Company You Keep has so many things going for it – an awesome director in Robert Redford, a story with an interesting hook, and the most impressive ensemble cast this side of Spielberg’s Lincoln – but its slow pacing and meandering plot removes much of the film’s liveliness, ultimately rendering it a boring and unfulfilling entry into a genre I normally love.
As movie studios continue to make a lot of their money by churning out films based on board games, comic books, and toy lines, I’m thrilled to see a modestly-budgeted film directed at adult crowds. But while The Company You Keep is definitely an outlier in the current film landscape, the movie itself is such a lukewarm piece of work that it almost certainly won’t have any impact on the larger market. If this film had been amazing, perhaps it could have breathed life back into these mid-budget thrillers that studios rarely risk making these days; sadly, we’re left wondering what could have been instead of celebrating a new modern classic.
The film follows Nick Sloan (Robert Redford), a former member of a 1960s radical group called The Weather Underground who now lives under an alias in Albany, New York, working as a lawyer and raising his 11-year-old daughter. The group was responsible for the death of a bank guard in their rebellious days, and when the FBI finally arrests one of the now-middle-aged former members (Susan Sarandon), a cocky local newspaper reporter named Ben Shepard (Shia LaBeouf) is assigned the story and starts digging into the other members of the group, all of whom vanished after the incident but are still on the FBI’s Most Wanted list. While Sloan heads across the country to meet his old flame (Julie Christie) and clear his name, Shepard goes from lead to lead to discover the truth behind what happened all those years ago.
Redford and his editor move the action along at a crawl, slowing to a halt as characters argue about the morality of their previous choices. When Christie and Redford finally meet, the film essentially stops for 10-15 minutes as they bicker back and forth with no progress being made on either side; these characters haven’t seen each other for 30 years and they’d likely have a lot to say to each other in that time, but they spend what seems like an eternity rehashing their pasts. Watching this is like being trapped on an airplane and listening to the couple in front of you argue about who left the stove on, without anyone apologizing, owning up to it, or presenting a solution for how to move beyond it.
The only thing that got me through the film was seeing familiar faces pop up in every scene, even in tiny roles. Terrence Howard and Anna Kendrick play FBI agents hunting Redford. Richard Jenkins, Nick Nolte, and Stephen Root appear as former Weather Underground members. Brit Marling plays Brendan Gleeson’s adopted daughter, a sort of half-baked love interest for LaBeouf’s character. Sam Elliott and Chris Cooper also have small parts, and Stanley Tucci plays LaBeouf’s editor at the newspaper. It’s a ridiculously stacked cast, and they all do fine work making these characters feel like real people. LaBeouf in particular does a great job, adding to the indie cred he’s been building lately.
Still, the film’s methodical pacing seems to be at odds with the immediacy of the story it’s telling. It takes the time to make observations about its central conflict in lines like “Terrorists justify terrorism,” and Sarandon’s almost haunting confession that “we made mistakes, but we were right” seems to communicate the director’s personal thoughts on the controversial subject. But by making the story almost as much about LaBeouf finding the truth as it is about Redford’s closure, it loses some of its focus and emotional impact. A last second plea for LaBeouf to consider the power his words wield seems like an afterthought, and the film’s closing shot – designed to be a tender moment – doesn’t resonate at all.
Writer Lem Dobbs (Dark City, The Limey, Haywire) adapted the screenplay from Neil Gordon’s 2003 novel, and everything that happens in the movie feels as if it would make much more sense in book form. Logical gaps are likely the result of having to cut elements of the book in order to create a separate story for the screen, and as much as I wanted to love it, I just couldn’t shake the feeling that it didn’t tell this story in the most effective way possible. I was hoping for the next great journalism thriller, but if you’re looking for some excellent performances wrapped in old-school filmmaking, The Company You Keep delivers. Until next time…