Wednesday, May 1, 2013

The Company You Keep: The guests exceed their talking points

The Company You Keep (2012) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rating: R, for profanity
By Derrick Bang

Almost four decades later, Robert Redford continues to flee from The Establishment.

The Company You Keep has some pleasant echoes of 1975’s Three Days of the Condor, particularly during the first act. Granted, this new thriller lacks any sort of spy element, but in both cases Redford’s man on the run must outwit better organized and far more numerous pursuers, while we audience members attempt to solve the twisty mystery that fuels the hunt.

FBI Agent Cornelius (Terrence Howard, left) is quite annoyed by the arrogance displayed
by journalist Ben Shepard (Shia LaBeouf), and even angrier that rookie agent Diana
(Anna Kendrick) apparently allowed her previous relationship with this reporter to
cloud her professional judgment. Somebody's head is about to roll; meanwhile,
long-dormant domestic terrorists continue to elude what Cornelius regards as justice.
The political element is significantly different, however, reflecting a greater maturity on Redford’s part. His CIA researcher in Three Days of the Condor was an undisputed good guy caught in a conspiracy that anticipated the energy crisis: a vividly black-and-white scenario that ultimately made a savior of the great Fourth Estate, and its ability to keep the American public informed about vile doings.

Screenwriter Lem Dobbs’ view of newspaper journalists is a bit more complicated in The Company You Keep, and the political subtext is various shades of gray; indeed, it could be argued that Redford’s character here deserves to be caught and punished. Absolute right and wrong are more difficult to pin down, although confirmed leftists will be cheered by the fact that various good fights still seem worth the effort.

The tone also is agreeable; the shrill preaching that characterized Redford’s previous political drama, 2007’s Lions for Lambs, is largely absent here. Granted, this new film also relies too much on talking heads at times, particularly during a final act that wears out its welcome; some judicious trimming could have made a better-paced drama out of this somewhat self-indulgent 121-minute experience.

That said, it’s hard not to be impressed by the cast Redford assembled (he also directed). You’ll rarely find an ensemble as accomplished as Julie Christie, Susan Sarandon, Chris Cooper, Stanly Tucci, Richard Jenkins, Brendan Gleeson and Nick Nolte; and tomorrow’s stars are equally well represented by Shia LaBeouf, Brit Marling and Anna Kendrick.

Many of these performers pop up in relatively small roles, which ordinarily might be distracting, or invite an accusation of stunt casting. But everybody perfectly fits their parts, and it’s hard to argue with the results (at least, from an acting standpoint). In that sense, The Company You Keep hearkens back to Hollywood’s golden age, when similarly star-laden casts weren’t all that unusual.

Dobbs’ screenplay is adapted from Neil Gordon’s 2003 novel of the same title, which weaves a fictional thriller around the actual activities of the domestic terrorist group known as the Weather Underground, which split off from Students for a Democratic Society in 1969 and — in order to further its goal of overthrowing the U.S. government — bombed a series of banks and government buildings in the 1970s. Anger over the Vietnam War initially fueled both SDS and Weather Underground activities, but the latter’s radicalized behavior quickly derailed any political credibility it may have earned.

The end of the Vietnam War brought an end to most “New Left” activities, but three former Weather Underground members joined another extremist splinter group and participated in a violent 1981 Brinks armored truck robbery. A security guard and two police officers were killed; the culprits were caught and given lengthy prison terms.

Gordon used that event as the hook for his novel, while playing fast and loose with established fact; Dobbs retains these details to set up this big-screen adaptation.

The story opens as Sharon Solarz (Sarandon), a former member of the Weather Underground who for 30 years has concealed herself under a new identity as a happily married wife and mother, abruptly decides to turn herself in. She isn’t quite able to orchestrate this act of contrition on her own terms; a zealous FBI agent — Terrence Howard, as Cornelius — denies her that satisfaction and arrests her first.

Cornelius’ anger derives from the fact that Solarz has been on the FBI’s Most Wanted list for three decades, due to her participation in a bank robbery that left a security guard dead. Solarz was one of several Weather Underground members involved with that botched robbery, and they all vanished into the protective cover of new names and lives. Cornelius regards Solarz as the means to find all the others ... but she isn’t talking.

At least, not directly.

Her case piques the curiosity of Ben Shepard (LaBeouf), a cocky and ambitious reporter at the Albany Sun Times, who wonders why Solarz would have surfaced after so long ... and why, through a mutual friend, she would have sought legal representation from Jim Grant (Redford) ... and why Grant, an activist attorney with a reputation for embracing leftist causes, would have declined.

Although a resourceful researcher and admirably dogged in his pursuit of truth, Shepard is an obnoxious and arrogant little prick who takes a carpet-bombing approach to journalism. He doesn’t care about who he bruises, batters or buries while chasing down a lead, and has an equally unfortunate tendency to antagonize his sources: serious character failings that vex long-suffering Sun Times editor Ray Fuller (Tucci), who warns that Shepard’s attitude will get him into trouble one day.

But Fuller can’t ignore the fact that his young reporter seems to have caught a tiger by the tail, and gaining credit for breaking this rapidly developing story can only help the struggling Sun Times’ financial bottom line. (Dobbs obviously couldn’t pass up the opportunity to remind us how crucial newspapers remain: a message, frankly, that we can’t hear often enough.) Ergo, Fuller reluctantly grants Shepard permission to pursue the story.

Shepard has no trouble finding Grant, and at first the latter’s savvy deflections and answers seem reasonable; he’s a recently widowed single parent doing his best to raise a young daughter — Jackie Evancho, adorable as Isabel — and he already has too much on his professional plate. But Shepard isn’t satisfied, and it doesn’t take him long to stumble upon the truth: Grant actually is the long-concealed Nick Sloan, another Weather Underground member from the old days ... and also wanted for the aforementioned bank robbery.

Knowing the FBI won’t be far behind if Shepard has sussed him out, Grant retrieves documents and emergency funds apparently prepared for just this eventually, and goes on the run. Oddly, though, he doesn’t take Isabel with him, despite our having just watched a tender scene between father and daughter, as he tells her that we always should hold tight to those we love the most.

Very strange, then, that Grant would leave her behind, even if as he takes steps to insure her safety. Shepard, an experienced observer of psychology and motivation, can’t understand this. Perhaps things aren’t quite as they seem?

Dobbs’ narrative explores several intriguing moral imperatives that are guaranteed to fuel water-cooler arguments, starting with whether one can compensate for a horrific act: Does a subsequent lifetime of good deeds and model behavior atone for such a crime? Of equal importance, though, is the degree to which innocents — children, friends and other family members — become collateral damage after the exposure of a long-buried lie.

We live in an era of rapacious media scrutiny, and while this film conveys a strong sense of how Grant’s exposure affects Isabel and his brother Daniel’s (Cooper) entire family, the intrusive horror of suddenly being the center of unwanted attention probably isn’t intense enough. Three decades later, Solarz and, yes, Grant have fresh transgressions to answer for.

Redford (as actor) deftly keeps us guessing; Grant seems likable and sincere. Making him a lawyer was a shrewd choice, since it justifies his quick wit and perfect retorts; Redford, always an eloquent and passionate actor, spars well with words.

LaBeouf walks an equally fine line. On the one hand, we can’t help respecting Shepard’s investigative savvy; on the other, he’s a true jerk who deserves the negative first impression everybody seems to form. Despite this, LaBeouf grants his character moments of self-deprecating candor that suggest Shepard might possess a soul. Maybe. Somewhere.

LaBeouf also holds his own during two key conversations: the first a revelatory holding-cell interview with Sarandon’s Solarz; the second a flirty exchange with Rebecca Osborne (Marling), daughter of the retired police chief (Gleeson) who worked on that bank robbery case, back in the day.

Sarandon, penetrating of eye and sharp of tongue, is mesmerizing during the aforementioned scene.

Nolte, Jenkins and Sam Elliott are perfectly cast as former activists who’ve adopted various methods of trying to move on: an effort this story argues is impossible.

Kendrick turns up as a rookie FBI agent who unwisely allows a former relationship with Shepard to loosen her tongue; sadly, we don’t spend enough time with her character. Stephen Root nails his brief appearance as an aging hippie caught up in these events, and Cooper is appropriately guarded as a doting younger brother who reluctantly allows himself to be manipulated by family ties.

Redford (as director) and editor Mark Day keep things smart and sharp for the first hour-plus, but the story drags as we approach the climax, with its promise of Answers. The resolution likely will divide viewers, as well: Some will be annoyed by what seems an attempt to romanticize these former radicals — there was nothing honorable about the actual Weather Underground — while others will smirk at the way Redford’s character manages to eat his activist cake, and have it, too.

All things considered, then, The Company You Keep suffers a bit, its flaws not entirely concealed by the sterling cast and their vibrant performances. Pity, that.

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