It's time, apparently, for the aging ghosts of '60s radicalism to once again take stock of their sins and compromises. In The Big Chill and Running on Empty, during the Reagan '80s, the then-middle-aged revolutionaries' to-do list involved holding down careers and worrying about their kids; now the noble fist-wavers are looking at Social Security and prescriptions of Levator. Once it gets its walkers moving, Robert Redford's The Company You Keep nearly plays like a green-granola-lefty counterpart to The Expendables, a Hollywood Elderhostel reunion crowded with septuagenarian icons looking back on the righteousness and failures of the Nixon/ 'Nam era with rheumy retirees' eyeballs.
The story, from Neil Gordon's novel about the contemporary fate of a few surviving Weather Underground fugitives, all but blows a trumpet for how rad rad used to be. First Sarandon's Vermont housewife, her kids all grown up, throws in the secret-identity towel and surrenders herself to the FBI; from there, the dominoes tumble, leading cub reporter Shia LaBeouf to follow his nose and soon uncover the similarly fake ID of Redford's upstate lawyer, sending this suede-faced ex-Weatherman running. (Which translates to, predictably, the 77-year-old Redford slipping seamlessly through crowds disguised only in a baseball cap and sunglasses.)
The FBI closes in, LaBeouf's annoying snoop pesters every single other character motivated only by his journalistic creed (in a contemporary world where we're reminded every few minutes about how journalism is dead), and withering guest-stars (Julie Christie, Sam Elliott, Richard Jenkins, a phlegm-plagued Nick Nolte) emerge to crinkle and wheeze about the good old days of bank robberies and protests. Redford's noble Methuselah isn't just self-preserving — he's got an unseasonably preadolescent daughter to worry about and a case for his own redemption to make.
In his fastidiously white-bread way, Redford takes on a wildly ambivalent topic — homegrown terrorism or anti-imperialist freedom fighting? — but treats it with the same procedural tepidity that he brought to the Lincoln assassination fallout in The Conspirator two years ago. (It's that self-righteous Redford squint; you can just see him directing with it.) Of course the Weather participants are all fictionalized, and no known members are still thought to be hiding out under aliases and clipping Early Bird coupons, leaving the film in something of an existential pickle. Why Weather, in 2013? Could it be Obama's old Bill Ayers connection? The question might seem more pungent if the movie weren't a cliché farm, complete with Terence Howard's FBI head yelling "C'mon, people!" during the techno-surveillance chase, and Stanley Tucci, as LaBeouf's irascible editor, practically snapping his suspenders in fury over his uncontrollable hotshot employee.
The deep-dish cast does its job cameo by cameo, with memorable glimpses of humanity offered by Sarandon's quiet fierceness (softly maintaining that, yes, she'd engage in violent protest again, like, now) and Brendan Gleeson's retired police captain, in each of his scenes thinking one step ahead of LaBeouf. Redford, on the other hand, is still trying to come off as someone a quarter-century younger than he is (his '60s FBI photos are publicity shots from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid), and with his oddly melting visage he often looks woefully like a David Levine-drawn caricature of himself. Maybe it's time to start that memoir, Bob.
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Given the finger-wagging suggestion of its title, it's actually no surprise to find that The Company You Keep turns out to be politically chicken-hearted — the progressive cant we hear sounds idiotic, and political principles are seen as pathetic challenges to the demands of family and law and order. Frantz Fanon gets a conspicuous plug, but you'd never know that in real life the Weathermen killed no one. Through the whole film you're on tenterhooks waiting for Redford to wrestle with the ethical tar pit at the center of the armed-protest idea. I kept hoping LaBeouf would get violently radicalized, or that a handcuffed Sarandon would grab a gun and go on a tear. But Redford cops out, finally, and succeeds only in defanging the idea of resistance altogether. Far from engaged, the film practically surrenders in an arthritic faint.