The ghosts of other, greater film whisper through Robert Redford’s stilted drama about sixties radicalism and millennial ennui, highlighting just how pat and unambitious an effort this is. This shouldn’t be a surprise coming from Redford, given that his directorial efforts (Quiz Show to The Horse Whisperer) have tended towards the lachrymose. What makes The Company You Keep is the offhanded way it feints at larger issues and disposes of them in such a blase manner. Say what one will about Lions Before Lambs, at least it didn’t pretend the questions it raised could be answered so easily.
Redford casts himself in the starring role as Jim Grant, yet another of his stock-in-trade characters, the mild-mannered man of ideals. A widowed lawyer in upstate New York, Grant is yanked into the biggest story to hit the struggling local paper in years when a nearby woman, Sharon Solarz (Susan Sarandon), is charged by the FBI with being part of a Weather Underground bank robbery decades earlier where a bank guard was killed. In no short order, the feds put together that Grant might be living under an assumed identity just like Solarz. Grant ditches his daughter with his brother (Chris Cooper) and goes on the run.
While the once-respected lawyer becomes the fugitive, his trail is being followed by reporter Ben Shepard (Shia LaBeouf), who has seized on the story like a terrier on a rasher of bacon. A dark beacon of snark and cynicism, Shepard is meant to epitomize the politically detached millennial generation, initially confused and then fascinated by the world of dedicated idealism he uncovers. His gradual awakening to the idea that people have beliefs is even less interesting than it sounds. But LaBeouf invests this character with enough smartass guile that he just about sells it. Pity that Lem Dobbs’ dry screenplay does little to build any fire from the sparks thrown off by such clashes of the generations.
Redford is obviously an actors’ director, and his squadron of resilient performers work up a sweat trying to grind some lemonade from this flavorless mess. The film’s strength comes in some of its smaller confrontations. A scene where Shepard interviews Solarz about her terrorist past is a delicately handled thing, Sarandon staring right through LaBeouf with murderous conviction, and both of them handle is just about perfectly. “Terrorists justify terrorism,” an FBI agent reminds Shepard afterwards. “Don’t get confused.”
But sadly the film does just that, following Grant as he hooks up with one friend after another from the past but failing to build any greater argument or theme from any of them. What we get are shrewd turns from Richard Jenkins and Nick Nolte as weary ex-hippies, or Sam Elliott as the mellowest stock trader in the world; curiously, a late appearance from Julie Christie is one of the film’s only flat performances, next to Redford’s. But there is no real engagement with the question dangled in that early prison interview: When, if ever, is violence justified in the pursuit of political ideals?
The Company You Keep feints at dealing with big issues, but resorts to muddled character development. It’s a seeming impossibility: a middlebrow film about extremists.