The title of Robert Redford’s The Company You Keep, adapted from Neil Gordon‘s 2003 novel of the same name, echoes the title and sentiment of Sarah Polley’s excellent documentary Stories We Tell, also shown here in Venice a few days ago. While the latter is a very intimate story dealing with the plurality of voices and truths at the heart of family narratives, and the former engages American history looking at the actions of radical-left organization the Weathermen in the 70s, Redford is just as concerned as Polley with the necessity of starting a discourse, specifically an inter-generational one. He seems earnestly consumed by this feeling, and does nothing to hide it in his movies. The last three films he’s made, in particular, all have this signature.
Usually, for this discourse to happen, Redford needs a recipient, a representative of youth to interact with. This time the honor goes to Shia LaBeouf, who has played an awful lot of "young recipients" in the last few years and seems to have no intention of stopping. Here he plays Ben Shepard, a scruffy reporter for the Albany Sun Times who uncovers the real identity of Jim Grant (Redford), a lawyer and seemingly model citizen. It turns out Grant is actually Nicholas Sloan, a former member of the Weathermen, wanted by the FBI for the murder of a security guard during one of the group’s attacks. The revelation triggers a double quest for the truth that sends Redford and LaBeouf on two parallel strands, one trying to clear his name and go back to his daughter, the other interviewing his way to the core of the group’s past.
Predictably, there is little excitement here. The whole film seems to be an excuse for Redford to do a bit of talking, and discussing, and negotiating. He explores the subject of the actual Weathermen group far less than he deals with the twin themes of legacy and memory. He meets LaBeouf at the start and end of the movie, basically paraphrasing what he told Andrew Garfield's young student in Lion for Lambs. Not that there’s anything wrong with that—you have to admire Redford’s trademark benevolent prodding. It’s never too preachy, it’s never absolute. And it always has just the right amount of cheekiness. He excels at telling young kids to get off their arses and pay attention to what’s around them.
Despite his being at the front and center of the movie (it’s interesting he chose to play Nick Sloan, given his dislike of simultaneously acting and directing—a sincere reluctance that transfers to his portrayal of a fugitive, tired, single-dad character), the most impressive feature of The Company You Keep is the roster of supporting players Redford strategically places in Sloan's path. Mostly appearing as Redford’s ex-comrades, the likes of Susan Sarandon, Nick Nolte, Chris Cooper, Sam Elliot, Brendan Gleeson, Richard Jenkins and Julie Christie all make lasting impressions as worn-out survivors from a different era. Each new encounter provides a different viewpoint on the group’s cause, methods, and struggle, while also making great use of such an abundance of talent to create little sketches of different shades of humanity, from all walks of life.
Enjoyable despite its limitations, The Company You Keep (safely kept away from the Competition here in Venice, yet still given the exposure Redford presumably wanted) is an undoubtedly sincere entry in the director’s gallery of movies devoted to illuminating gray areas of American history. Yes, it’s terribly didactic, but one suspects Redford doesn’t really care, as long as he can have a kid in front of him to nudge towards awareness. Gently.