“Old hippies never die, they just smell that way,” bumperstickers used to say, but the dropouts largely come up smelling like roses in “The Company You Keep,” Robert Redford’s unabashedly heartfelt but competent tribute to 1960s idealism. Cannily casting eminent baby-boomer thesps — including Julie Christie, who was a poster kid for the counterculture — against young name actors like Shia LaBeouf, the pic attempts to bridge the generation gap with this story of a Weather Underground fugitive on the lam, played by Redford himself. Although more engaging than the helmer’s last few films, “Company” won’t spark riots at the box office.
A quick opening montage explains for the benefit of those under 40 what the Weather Underground was: a terrorist network committed to the violent overthrow of the U.S. government that broke away in the late 1960s from radical but pacifist org, Students for a Democratic Society. Skillfully faked fictional footage woven in with real archival material recounts how several Weathermen went into hiding after killing a security guard during a bank robbery in Michigan.
In contempo upstate New York, housewife Sharon Solarz (Susan Sarandon), one of those involved in the ill-fated Michigan robbery, turns herself in to the FBI after nearly 30 years of living under a false identity. Ambitious young reporter Ben Shepard (LaBeouf) starts digging around the story, and turns up evidence that local nice-guy lawyer and recently widowed single parent Jim Grant (Redford) was also part of Solarz’s cell back in the day. Old photos of Redford, sporting a Sundance Kid moustache, and Sarandon in her ingenue phase are cunningly photoshopped to make mugshots for Most Wanted posters, coyly evoking the thesps’ glory days as pin-ups.
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Deftly shaking off surveillance by FBI field officers (Terrence Howard, Anna Kendrick), Grant deposits his young daughter Isabel (Jacqueline Evancho) with his brother Daniel (Chris Cooper) for safekeeping, and hits the road. His mission is to track down former g.f. Mimi (Christie), the cell’s most passionate firebrand, who unlike Jim and nearly all the others never settled down and went straight. On hearing via the underground network that Jim’s looking for her, she wistfully recalls to her current beau (Sam Elliott) that’s she’s walked away from six different lives over the years, an experience that’s seemingly left her hardened and unsentimental.
While nostalgia is otherwise generally the order of the day here, it’s not entirely filtered through rose-colored granny glasses, and the pic’s colorful, almost-wastefully impressive cast limns a sociologically convincing rogue’s gallery of reformed revolutionaries — some turned organic farmer, like the one played by Stephen Root (refreshingly cast against usual nerdy type); or university professor (Richard Jenkins), putting Franz Fanon on the reading list; or small businessman, like Nick Nolte’s cleaned-up acid casualty. The last, a brief but memorable turn, harks pleasingly back to Nolte’s blasted ‘Nam vet in “Who’ll Stop the Rain.”
Even screenwriter Lem Dobbs, adapting Neil Gordon’s novel here, has something of track record with this sort of material, having written Steven Soderbergh’s “The Limey” (1999), another tale about ’60s survivors haunted by its thesps’ own filmographies. Like that film, all plot roads lead to a young woman whose honor must be defended, in this case Brit Marling’s smart love-interest law student, who upstages LaBeouf.
“The Company You Keep” is nowhere near as formally audacious as Soderbergh’s film, but in its stolid, old-fashioned way, it satisfies an appetite, especially among mature auds, for dialogue- and character-driven drama that gets into issues without getting too bogged down in verbiage (unlike Redford’s recent “Lions for Lambs” or “The Conspirator”).
There is something undeniably compelling, perhaps even romantic, about America’s ’60s radicals and the compromises they did or didn’t make, a subject underexplored in Hollywood cinema apart from honorable exceptions like Sidney Lumet’s “Running on Empty” (1988) and a few others. The French, meanwhile, have almost completely monopolized radical chic nostalgia, as seen in another Venice fest entry, Olivier Assayas’ “Something in the Air.”
Craft contributions are fine.
The Company You Keep
Reviewed at Venice Film Festival (noncompeting), Sept. 5, 2012. Running time: 121 MIN.
A Sony Pictures Classics release of a Voltage Pictures presentation of a Voltage Pictures/Wildwood Enterprises production, in association with Film Capital Europe Funds, Soundford Limited, Picture Perfect Corp. (International sales: Voltage Pictures, Los Angeles.) Produced by Nicolas Chartier, Robert Redford, Bill Holderman. Executive producers, Craig J. Flores, Shawn Williamson.
Directed by Robert Redford. Screenplay, Lem Dobbs, based on a novel by Neil Gordon. Camera (Technicolor, widescreen, HD), Adriano Goldman; editor, Mark Day; music, Cliff Martinez; production designer, Laurence Bennett; art director, Jeremy Stanbridge; set decorator, Carol Lavallee; costume designer, Karen Matthews; sound (Dolby Digital/Datasat), Chris Duesterdiek; sound designer, Steve Boeddeker; supervising sound editors, Richard Hymns, Dan Laurie; re-recording mixers, Juan Peralta, Steve Boeddeker; visual effects supervisor, Adam Stern; visual effects, Artifex Studios, the VFX Cloud, Lola; stunt coordinator, Danny Virtue; associate producer, Jonathan Shore; assistant director, Richard Graves; casting, Avy Kaufman.
Cast: Robert Redford, Shia LaBeouf, Julie Christie, Susan Sarandon, Nick Nolte, Chris Cooper, Terrence Howard, Stanley Tucci, Richard Jenkins, Anna Kendrick, Brendan Gleeson, Brit Marling, Sam Elliott, Stephen Root, Jacqueline Evancho.