Maven's Nest

Reel Life: Flick Pix

Old time radicals on the run in even older bodies

By Nora Lee Mandel

Directed by Robert Redford
Produced by Neil Gordon, Nicholas Chartier, Redford, and Bill Holderman
Written by Lem Dobbs, based on the novel by Neil Gordon
Released by Sony Picture Classics
USA. 125 min. Rated R
With: Robert Redford, Shia Labeouf, Julie Christie, Sam Elliott, Brendan Gleeson, Terrence Howard, Richard Jenkins, Anna Kendrick, Brit Marling, Stanley Tucci, Nick Nolte, Chris Cooper, Jackie Evancho, Stephen Root, and Susan Sarandon

The Company You Keep features a terrific ensemble of actors in beautiful scenery for a quizzical tale of regretful politics that doesn’t quite add up as a whole or with much insight.

Robert Redford, directing his ninth film, attracts a formidable cast to co-star with him, and they each quickly establish rich characters in brief scenes. After a swirl of black-and-white TV news flashbacks about a 1970’s Michigan bank robbery by political radicals that left a guard dead, Susan Sarandon is seen as a suburban housewife carrying a heavy secret from her family. Just before she’s about to turn herself in as the accomplice Sharon Solarz, an FBI Agent (Terrence Howard) has discovered her real identity and arrests her in upstate New York. Turns out the FBI had a wiretap on an organic farmer suspected of large-scale marijuana growing, Billy Cusimano (a grizzled Stephen Root), who she had called for help with a lawyer. The local lefty defense attorney he seeks out is Jim Grant (Redford), whose very refusal to take her case raises the suspicions of a messy, hotshot young reporter at the local paper Ben Shephard (Shia Labeouf), who is trying to impress his crusty editor (Stanley Tucci). He seems to be intentionally done up as an ironic comparison to Redford’s pairing 30 years ago with Dustin Hoffman in Alan Pakula’s All The President’s Men, but now somewhat as adversaries. With some clues from an ex (Anna Kendrick) who happens to be with the local FBI office, Shepherd cleverly figures out that Grant is really fellow robbery accomplice Nick Sloan.

That sets Sloan on the run, but now he’s a single father responsible for a sweet young daughter Isabel (Jackie Evancho, in her first non-singing role). His odyssey to reach out to the old band will keep him just barely ahead of the reporter and one step ahead of the Feds. He slips through the tightening cordon so his brother Daniel (Chris Cooper) can get to protect his daughter, then from New York to California, he reaches out one by one to former contacts who helped him go underground, which feels like getting the old experts together in Clint Eastwood’s Space Cowboys (2000) to face a legacy problem.

Going cross country, the working class cred of his political ideals is represented by rugged lumberyard owner Donal Fitzgerald (Nick Nolte), who can still get him fake IDs. On to Chicago for the intellectual wing (looked at the most cynically), he calls in a very reluctant favor owed by cranky Professor Jed Lewis (Richard Jenkins), who has turned his past radical connections into academic success by teaching popular courses about the period.

Two other old connections parallel out on the West Coast. Co-conspirator accused fugitive Mimi Lurie (Julie Christie) is unusually outdoorsy in her cover role of a yacht racer who is really running a successful marijuana smuggling operation, and is an accomplished backpacker as well. Her partner Mac Mcleod (Sam Elliott) is sagely tuned into the underground coded communication network to pass on the message that Sloan wants to meet up with her, back at their old haunts in Michigan. (The Vancouver area settings are beautiful substitutes.) In the meantime, the reporter is going back to the scene of the crime and finding surprising family connections on the Upper Peninsula between Mimi and the original investigating police officer (Brendan Gleeson), let alone connecting with his sultry college student daughter (Brit Marling).

The human connections the actors well establish are much more convincing than any political messages. Marling in her brief flirtations encapsulates deservedly eliminated sections of Neil Gordon’s epistolary novel that were the least credible, but much of what remains is still head-scratching and the moral debates are more rueful than thoughtfully deep. Though the original crimes, and the reporter’s researched images from them take place in the mid-1970’s as “30 years ago” (when the lead actors were in their ‘40’s), the action, like the novel, seems set in 1996 when an investigative reporter would be in dusty files and at creaky microfilm machines, and it was possible for suspected domestic terrorists to evade authorities between (the mostly illegal) covert Counter Intelligence Program a.k.a. COINTELPRO and the post-9/11 Patriot Act that makes a lot of such surveillance legal. The cell is referred to as part of the Weather Underground (including that the professor bears a lot of similarities to the impressions of Bill Ayers as an issue in Obama’s presidential campaigns) and their track record of not killing non-members, but the surfacing of the militant turned housewife that kickstarts the film parallels how Kathleen Ann Soliah, aka Sara Jane Olson, of the more violent Symbionese Liberation Army was caught in 1999. These ironies were already explored, very cynically and more entertainingly, in Jeremy Kagan‘s The Big Fix (1978).

The lessons learned from the older but wiser generation could have been presented as more relevant to current anti-war or anti-Wall Street protests. Instead, it feels more like the criminals’, and actors’, reunion in Fisher Stevens’ Stand Up Guys last year.

April 11, 2013

Nora Lee Mandel is a member of New York Film Critics Online and the Alliance of Women Film Journalists. Her reviews are counted in the Rotten Tomatoes TomatoMeter:
Complete Index to Nora Lee Mandel's Movie Reviews

Since August 2006, edited versions of many of my reviews of documentaries/indie/foreign films are at Film-Forward; since 2012, festival overviews at FilmFestivalTraveler; and, since 2016, coverage of women-made films at FF2 Media. Shorter versions of my older reviews are at IMDb's comments, where non-English-language films are listed by their native titles.

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