Robert Redford’s most recent efforts as a director have had a dispiritingly medicinal quality, as the Dean of Sundance has tried to edify audiences about politics both recent (Lions For Lambs) and past (The Conspirator) without bothering with the whole “entertainment” part. With The Company You Keep, Professor Redford turns his attentions to the 1960s and schools an ambitious young reporter played by Shia LeBeouf—and by extension the audience—on the counterculture, the SDS, The Weatherman, and the anti-war left’s turn toward violence. The result feels like cinematic health food: vaguely good for you but less than delicious.
The eternally non-prolific Redford, who only makes a few films a decade but makes sure no one remembers them, stars as a notorious ’60s radical who went underground and passed as a lawyer in upstate New York for decades. His anonymity ends when the arrest of a fellow radical (Susan Sarandon) puts the heat on him and gets him attention from LeBeouf, a dogged reporter chasing the scoop of his young career. As Redford searches for a crucial figure from his past, he seeks out old acquaintances, played by a murderers’ row of character actors of a certain age, including Richard Jenkins, Nick Nolte, and Chris Cooper.
The Company You Keep is more compelling as an autumnal meditation on aging and how our political convictions evolve with time and circumstances than it is as a thriller. Redford’s advanced age and the film’s poky pacing render it a chronicle of the world’s most sedate manhunt. The Company You Keep is never afraid to really stretch out and take its time, which plays to the strengths of a cast that features seemingly every great character actor in the Rolodex (Brendan Gleeson, Sam Elliott, Terrence Howard, Anna Kendrick, Stephen Root, and Julie Christie, among others) but also destroys any aspirations to tension or suspense. The Company You Keep sacrifices depth for breadth. In constantly shifting focus from Redford and LeBeouf onto its ridiculously overqualified cast, the film ends up rendering the underwritten Redford a supporting character in his own saga, leaving the sleepy little political drama rudderless. The film surveys once-white-hot emotions and furiously held political convictions from such a vast historical and chronological distance that they, and the film itself, can’t help but seem hopelessly lukewarm.