Arts & Events

The Company You Keep
Opens April 12 at the Albany Theater

By Gar Smith
Saturday April 13, 2013 - 08:21:00 AM
Robert Redford as Jim Grant
Robert Redford as Jim Grant
Shia LeBeouf as Ben Shepard
Shia LeBeouf as Ben Shepard

Robert Redford returns to the screen as actor/director for the first time since his 2007 anti-Afghan war film, Lions for Lambs. Based on a book by Neil Gordon, The Company You Keep takes the premise of "The Fugitive" and gives it a Weather Underground spin. The cast is not just stellar: it is downright A-List cosmic. The dialog crackles and the directing is sure-footed and fast-paced, but I had some reservations. So, do yourself a favor: See and enjoy this film first. And only then, read the rest of this review. 


A Mixed Review 

It's worth noting that several movie critics at the SF screening of The Company You Keep chuckled appreciatively throughout the screening and the film won a rare round of applause as it ended. The post-screening consensus was that Redford had delivered an excellent and entertaining film -- "much better than Lions for lambs," as one critic noted. But I had some qualms. 

Things got off on the wrong track when I made a mistake I'll never repeat: I began reading the press handout before the film started. In these preview sheets, Redford recalls the anti-war protest of the Sixties and confesses: "I sympathized with that at the time, but I didn't get involved." 

But what really got me was Redford's comment that he was fascinated by the story of former radicals forced to live under assumed identities. "It wasn't so much about the antiwar movement," Redford reflected, "because that belongs to history." 

WTF? Like Americans haven't been protesting a long string of Bush-Obama wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and Yemen (with intimations of new conflicts in Iran, Syria and North Korea)? 

Maybe it was also the case of the topic sticking a little too close to home. The Company You Keep begins with an archival news clip of ABC News Anchor Frank Reynolds reporting on Weather Underground bombings in Oakland and Berkeley. 

I'd been an anti-war activist, my phone was tapped, I was subject to an FBI "mail watch" and the nice lady who ran the post office in Bolinas turned out to be spying on me for the FBI. In addition, a former co-worker of mine was gunned-down during the LA Police Department's scorched-earth attack on a Symbionese Liberation Army "safe house" in 1974. 

So, as the film began, I just wasn't prepared to fully suspend my disbelief. And this, admittedly, was unfair to the film. 

A Jaundiced Viewing 

When Redford, as Jim Grant -- a former-radical-in-hiding-turned-progressive-civil-rights-attorney -- first walks into his kitchen to greet his daughter and her nanny, I was already feeling peckish. His young daughter, Izzy, (played ably by pre-teen singing sensation Jackie Evancho) struck me as too-cute-by-half (and well aware of it). And when Grant's cellphone rings and he starts slapping his shirt and pants to locate it, I found myself noting super-critically that his shirt didn't have pockets. 

Copping to the fact that I was not behaving as a fair-minded critic, I determined to cut the film some slack and soon found myself swept up in the surging storyline and shifting perspectives. 

It's hard to resist the mouse-and-cat ballet that takes place between Jim Grant and the young Boston reporter Ben Shepard (played to prickly perfection by Shia LeBeouf). As LeBeouf put it in an interview, Ben Shepard is a "fame-whore." He's an unrelenting, go-for-broke reporter but the real story is "all about him." 

Ben oozes distain for these former radicals who, in the course of their rebellion against the government, staged a bank robbery that resulted in the death of an innocent bystander. But even after Ben exposes Jim Grant as an imposter, he does grant that, though the fugitive may be a criminal, "he's still logical." 

This Film's Line-up Is Hollywood Gold 

The Company You Keep keeps some pretty amazing company. Susan Sarandon stars as Sharon Solarz, a former Weather Underground member whose decision to face up to her crimes sets the dramatic dominoes in motion. Along the way, the film features a wonderful array of character performances by Chris Cooper, Nick Nolte, Stanley Tucci, Brendon Gleeson, Terrence Howard, Sam Elliot and a punk-pixie-like Julie Christie. The film is (among other things) a wonderful appreciation of an aristocracy of aging actors -- boldly displayed in all their well-earned sags and wrinkles. 

The younger cast members deserve full credit as well. LeBeouf immediately establishes himself as a known quantity -- self-absorbed, hollow and manipulative. And a sparkling Brit Marling proves more than equal to LeBeouf's bluster. (Marling's someone to watch. A former investment analyst with Goldman Sachs, Marling underwent a radical career-shift to emerge as a prolific actress/writer/producer. She premiered two films at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival.) 

Hot-head on the Trail 

The Company You Keep suggests that, in order to be a good reporter, you need to be an absolute prick. Ben may be a pain-in-the-tuckus, but he knows his trade. He only needs to snap a photo of Grant's license plate to quickly establish that the paper trail supporting the attorney's identity abruptly vanishes somewhere in mid-1979. (A fact that somehow failed to stop Grant from becoming a successful public attorney.) 

When Jim Grant concludes that Solarz's arrest means he will be next to fall, he hops a train to clear his name and the chase is on. 

Somehow, throughout the film, Ben Shepard intuits nearly every step of Grant's journey (far better that the high-tech-equipped spies of the FBI, who follow in stumbling pursuit, always in Ben's wake). 

Ben alone realizes that Grant is not on the run to avoid the law but to "clear his name." Why does Ben believe this? Because, he explains, if Grant had merely wished to escape, he would have taken his daughter along with him. (Yeah, sure. Like there's nothing about a 76-year-old man traveling with an 11-year-old daughter that would draw attention.) 

Logic on the Lam 

Logic takes another drubbing in a dramatic scene where Ben's editor (Stanley Tucci) berates him for a series of stories that exposed secret lives and held individuals up to public scorn. (Hold on, dude! You're the editor. You're the one who decided to publish those stories!) 

And we're expected to believe that fugitive Grant could avoid a police sweep of a crowded AMTRAK car by hiding in a restroom. And that, having avoided detection, he opts to run from the train so he can hop a bus and travel to a university town or a small village on the other side of the US. And that he can then saunter into a classroom or a run-down bar and introduce himself to a pair of former politicos who have been hiding from their activist pasts and living under new identities for 30 years. 

As filmgoers, however, it is easy to accept these excursions because Grant's former partners-in-revolution are played (deliciously) by Richard Jenkins and Nick Nolte. 

Grant's overriding goal is to locate the mysterious Mimi Lurie (Julie Christie), a former collaborator and lover. Grant stands accused of participating in the bank heist that claimed the life of an innocent civilian. In fact, Grant had decided to opt-out of the robbery and was not involved. Nonetheless, he was falsely accused of murder and now "only Mimi can clear my name." 

Once again, logic bristles. Why couldn't other members of the revolutionary robbery brigade have cleared Grant's name years ago? Why didn't Mimi simply provide a notarized affidavit claiming that Grant had no part in the robbery-gone-wrong? 

That said, Julie Christie is a treat as Mimi, the sea-going pot-smuggler. She is particularly strong in her refusal to apologize for her past radicalism. In a rare moment of cinematic trailblazing, her character defends violent revolution and explains that she would never turn herself in because such surrender would amount to a recognition of the power of a government whose moral legitimacy she has rejected. (Not that devoting your life to a career as a West Coast weed-runner is much of a revolutionary act.) 

More Plot Twists and Twisted Logic 

The story spins forward like a top, bouncing off one unlikely coincidence after another. (Did I mention the plot twist that introduces a surprise "love child" along the way?) And, in the progress, logic continues to take a bruising. In one scene, Grant is told that he only has 30 seconds to make a call before the FBI will be able to trace his location. And 20 minutes later, Grant insists on using a cellphone for an extended chat with his daughter. Naturally, this alerts the FBI to Grant's secret location in the wilds of northern Michigan. 

And, wouldn't you know it, the first person to track Grant down in his wilderness retreat isn't the FBI but enterprising reporter Ben Shepard -- who beats an FBI chopper to the scene by a matter of minutes. Fortunately this leaves just enough time for the fugitive attorney to impart a long-winded but profound bit of advice before charging off into the woods: 

"Secrets are dangerous things, Ben. We all think we want to know them. But if you've ever kept one yourself, then you understand to do so is not just knowing something about someone else, it's discovering something about yourself." 

Will Ben make a selfless decision for once and hit the "delete" key on his latest scoop? Will Jim be exonerated and reunited with Izzy? 

Yes, there will be a happy ending. Yes, it comes simply and without obvious struggle. It's what's known in the business as "a pat ending." 

There is only one lingering secret. While it's no surprise that Redford's film has opened in SF at the Sundance Kabuki Cinema, why is this politically charged film not being screened in Berkeley or Oakland?