Nice Weather, by David Bax
Robert Redford’s new film, The Company You Keep, is technically about the Weather Underground and the former activists of the late 60s and early 70s who are now living comfortable bourgeois lives. But it is about those subjects only in the most facile definition of the word because it seems unsure what if anything it has to say regarding them.
When Sharon Solarz (Susan Sarandon), a former member of the violent anti-war organization who is wanted in the case of the 1980 shooting death of a bank security guard, is found and apprehended by the FBI, the falling dominoes reveal the identity of Nick Sloan (Redford), who has been living in Albany and practicing law for 30 years under the name Jim Grant. Sloan goes on the run, pursued not only by feds (Terrence Howard and Anna Kendrick among them) but also by a young, slick, cocky Albany newspaper reporter named Ben Shephard (Shia LeBeouf). Along the way, both encounter a litany of aging revolutionaries who have ended up in very different places despite their common past.
Screenwriter Lem Dobbs is no stranger to a yarn with constant forward momentum and a new twist around every corner, having been responsible for such mystery/thrillers as The Limey, The Score and Haywire. As both Sloan and Shephard play parallel detective games, Dobbs perpetually keeps the audience slightly in the dark but, in the most basic way, intrigued and engaged. Editor Mark Day also deserves a lot of the credit. Day cut all four David Yates entries in the Harry Potter franchise but the more fitting precursor to this film is his work on Yates’ earlier, brilliant miniseries State of Play. With a similarly episodic structure, Company runs the risk of dragging itself from scene to scene, each a self-contained playlet. But, with Day behind the scenes, the movie’s 125 minutes rush by.
Maybe a series of one-acts wouldn’t have been the worst thing in the world, however, given the cast. Redford, LaBeouf, Sarandon, Howard and Kendrick are joined by Julie Christie, Nick Nolte, Chris Cooper, Stanley Tucci, Richard Jenkins, Brendan Gleeson, Brit Marling, Sam Elliott and Stephen Root (as well as recognizable guys like Lochlyn Munro and Hiro Kanagawa). With the exception of Howard and Kanagawa, the cast is conspicuously white but maybe that’s fitting for a film about a group of people who were able to step back from the cutting edge of civil action to a life of comfortable privilege, despite their misdeeds. Still, it would have been nice to have a comparison. In any case, Dobbs manages to give nearly everyone mentioned a great scene or two without killing the momentum.
So far, I’ve spoken mostly of the positive elements of The Company You Keep but I haven’t had much to say about Redford the director. Perhaps that’s because all these competent aspects are worth little given that the film is lacking exactly what an auteur should bring to it: a point of view. Is this film inviting us to get inside the head of domestic terrorists? Is it an apologia for revolutionaries who compromised? Is it meant to be a sobering examination at what things are really worth fighting for in this world? All those possibilities sound promising but Redford can’t seem to make up his mind which, if any of them, is important to him.
What does seem to interest the filmmaker is cutting corners (despite his investigative prowess, Shephard’s main conclusion about Sloan is a hunch dubiously backed up by conjecture) and letting its characters off the hook (one character’s last-minute, off-screen change of heart keeps Sloan from having to face any long-term consequences). It also has a demeaning disregard for the principles of journalism. But that won’t be the only reason it will earn poor reviews from critics. It ultimately settles, like many of its characters did, for pleasant mediocrity.