“My problem is that I can’t stop remembering,” says Robert Redford’s character in “The Company You Keep,” the best movie he’s directed since “Quiz Show” almost 20 years ago.
And how, I’d say. Remembering is definitely Redford’s problem – even if, in this case, it turns into his triumph, too. He’s probably the most backward-looking filmmaker in America, a conspicuous nostalgist for a late-1960s, early ’70s era when so many took moral questions to be simple and the right side of them easy as pie to find.
Even a movie like “Quiz Show” – which was about complexities smudging the clarities of a 1950s TV scandal – seemed to have come to us in 1994 with its issues and certainties all mapped out in 1972.
Redford – so well remembered for playing Bob Woodward in 1976’s “All the President’s Men” – is one of countless people afflicted with what might be called Woodstein Syndrome. That is the inability to find the issues and conflicts of any other recent historical era to be a fraction as vivid and cogent as those between 1965 and 1975, when the Vietnam War was being fought in Asia and students, militants and radicals sought to “bring the war back home” by fighting it on American streets and college campuses.
The character Redford plays in “The Company You Keep” was one of them. He’s a left-wing lawyer 30 years later, a widower whose former name was Nick Sloan now with an 11-year old daughter. Never mind that Redford, at 76, is 10 years too old to be playing Sloan, at least. If you do the math as the film presents Sloan’s life, he would have been 65 when his daughter was born and his late wife in her mid-30s. Even though Redford will let the camera see the bumps and creases in his face, his hair is dyed a most unlikely color for a 76-year-old.
Nick’s life as a lawyer is purposeful, comfortable and apparently all of a piece .(He drives an earnest Volvo.) His wife’s death at 48 in a car accident is the major impediment to his righteous serenity (and no small impediment indeed for a man with an 11-year-old daughter).
Until, that is, an old colleague of his in the Weather Underground is busted – while pumping gas into her big, fuel-guzzling SUV – for her part in an old bank robbery in which a bank employee was murdered.
She’d more or less given herself up out of guilt. And now that she’s surfaced and hauled her past up with her after three decades underground, Nick knows it’s only a matter of time before the FBI catches up to him and tries to pin the murder on him.
That is especially true because an ambitious newspaper reporter with good instincts but weak sympathies (Shia LaBeouf with perpetual generation-defining three days beard growth) has taken it upon himself to find everyone implicated in that compound stupidity from the radical politics of another time.
Here, then, is Redford dealing openly with what may be the most authentic subject known to his psyche – the hangover of another era in the earnest peace and self-satisfied somnolence of the present.
You don’t have to stretch your viewer’s muscles much to know how very much Hollywood conviction and idealism went into this thing. When the inventor of the Sundance Film Festival is casting a film, he’s by and large going to have the pick of the best actors working in movies today, especially independent movies. And sure enough, he does.
This is a dream cast, the kind that frequently seems to magically appear around Redford as the star, as we know all too well here from the mind-bending cast that joined him in Buffalo during the summer of 1983 to make “The Natural.”
In this one, LaBeouf plays Nick’s journalistic antagonist, Susan Sarandon plays his conscience-stricken old Weather Underground colleague, Julie Christie his old Weather lover, Nick Nolte, Richard Jenkins and Stanley Tucci as old fellow travelers and Chris Cooper and Terrence Howard as the FBI guys on the case.
That’s not all. It’s not even close to all. Also in the film are Anna Kendrick, Brendan Gleeson, Brit Marling and Sam Elliott. With a cast like that working at anything even vaguely resembling its accustomed level, a movie would have a hard time putting a foot wrong.
Which is not to say that “The Company You Keep” is an immaculate investigation of old political realities in a new world order. (“We all died,” says Nolte of their ’70s lives. “Some of us came back.”) Far too little is made by Redford or his scriptwriter Lem Dobbs (“The Limey,” “Dark City,”) of the character played by Christie, his old love whose comfortable life with Elliott doesn’t seem to have doused her radical fire much at all.
There is too much rue and remembrance in “The Company You Keep” as if this tale were all about – well, the company Nick Sloan once kept.
If ever a movie needed the spark of ideas, old and new, it’s this one. But it’s a fine, thoughtful investigative thriller in which the audience glides enthralled from scene to scene because each one presents us with actors who can – and have – filled up entire movies all by themselves.
And absorbs us in the process.
Often with Redford, the past is too much with him, late and soon. In this movie, it’s just enough.
THE COMPANY YOU KEEP
Starring: Robert Redford, Shia La Beouf, Julie Christie, Susan Sarandon, Nick Nolte
Director: Robert Redford
Running time: 121 minutes
Rating: R for language.
The Lowdown: A fugitive is pursued when an old colleague gives herself up for a murder and bank robbery they were involved in.