According to Hollywood lore, Robert Redford nursed a dream for decades to make a movie about renegade ‘60s-era activists on the run from the law, their counterculture idealism having devolved into an acceptance of violent means, including bombings. He acquired the rights to a popular novel on that theme and then sat on them for a long time, waiting for the zeitgeist to be right for the making of the film.
Alas, his new directorial effort The Company You Keep seems to be the movie that Redford made instead of the one that he originally intended: a cinematic adaptation of Edward Abbey’s hilarious 1975 tall tale about an ill-assorted lot of eco-terrorists who want to blow up the Glen Canyon Dam, The Monkey Wrench Gang. What with terrorism becoming a progressively uglier and more serious American obsession as the years went by, that golden moment when America would be ready to howl over the larger-than-life exploits of Hayduke and his pals onscreen never came. Redford got cold feet and let his option lapse.
Much as I wanted to like a movie exploring the lives of aging former members of the Weather Underground and how they try to reintegrate into the society that they once scorned, I’m sorry to have to say that The Company You Keep is a disappointing substitute for Ed Abbey’s wild and wooly Western yarn. After a couple of hours of often-tense buildup, the big denouement – the scene in which two long-separated lovers debate their differing ways of living out their commitments to “the Movement” – comes across as tepid and anticlimactic, and not for lack of acting talent ready to hand.
Despite a distinguished cast of older actors, most of the juice propelling the narrative in The Company You Keep comes from Shia LaBeouf’s character, Ben Shepard. Shepard is an ambitious newspaper reporter with superhuman research skills and dicey journalistic ethics who is unhappily stuck in an unglamorous job at a small-market daily in Albany, called (presumably for purposes of avoiding lawsuits) something other than the Times Union. Slipping bribes to contacts in exchange for scoops is all in a day’s work for Ben, which my hardworking Capital District colleagues must have found a rather amusing premise.
Ben’s perceived big career break comes when Sharon Solarz (Susan Sarandon), a fugitive radical wanted for a 1980 bank heist in Michigan that went awry, resulting in a man’s death, gets apprehended in the Albany area, just before she was planning to turn herself in. A slip of the tongue by a mutual friend (Stephen Root) kindles Ben’s suspicions about “Jim Grant” (Redford), another former Weatherman who has been practicing as an attorney in Albany under an assumed name for over 30 years. “Jim,” whose real name is Nick Sloan, has an 11-year-old daughter (Jackie Evancho) by his much younger wife, recently deceased.
Alarmed by the reporter’s pointed questions, Nick takes off for New York City with his daughter, leaving her in the keeping of his brother (Chris Cooper), who’s not all that keen on getting involved. Barely a step ahead of both Ben and the FBI, Nick embarks on a cross-country quest to find his old flame Mimi (Julie Christie), the only person who can prove that he was not actually present during the fatal bank robbery.
Along the way, Nick reconnects with a string of former Movement compadres. Donal (Nick Nolte), once his best friend, is a sweet-natured old hippie who finds under-the-radar jobs for wanted ex-militants in his lumberyard. Donal tells Nick that Jed Lewis (Richard Jenkins), a radical academic presumably patterned after real-life rehabilitated Weatherman Bill Ayres, is the keeper of the “address book” of the old Movement. Jed points Nick to Mac (Sam Elliott), with whom Mimi has most recently been living on the West Coast, and Mac tells Nick that Mimi has “gone inland,” knowing that he will interpret that directive correctly based on their past association.
Meanwhile, Ben is becoming baffled by Nick’s movements, which don’t jibe with the likely actions of a man who knows himself to be guilty. He tracks down Henry Osborne (Brendan Gleeson), the retired Michigan police detective who conducted the initial investigation of the fatal bank robbery, and develops a crush on Osborne’s adopted daughter Rebecca (Brit Marling) along the way. His native Irish accent entirely undetectable here, Gleeson is wonderful in the role; some of the film’s best moments are to be found in his gentle lectures to Ben about the potential human costs of his obsessive pursuit of sleeping dogs that might be better left to lie.
Redford gets to chew out LaBeouf a time or two as well, in a similarly low-key manner; but the young hotshot reporter turns out to be a slow learner when it comes to human relations. All trajectories converge more or less as expected in the end, and the audience comes away from Nick’s odyssey with a collective sense that these fugitives are basically decent people and no danger whatsoever to the public, no matter what the FBI may say.
If you’re old enough to remember the ‘60s, this will come as no soul-stirring revelation, and the entire production seems ultimately to be much ado about nothing. Me, I’m holding out for some whoopin’ and hollerin’ pyrotechnic dam destruction with Hayduke and company. Per Hollywood scuttlebutt, someone else is planning to make a movie of The Monkey Wrench Gang at long last.