Robert Redford directs and stars in The Company You Keep (2012), which premiered this week at the Venice Film Festival. Redford plays Jim Grant, a small town lawyer bringing up his daughter following the death of his wife in a car accident. His life is turned on its head, however, when crusading reporter Ben Shepard (Shia LaBeouf) discovers a link between the arrest of an old 1960s radical and former member of terrorist organisation the Weather Underground, Sharon Solarz (Susan Sarandon), and Grant.
The Weathermen’s commitment to stopping the war in Vietnam led to them blowing up government buildings and robbing banks back in the sixties. In one such robbery, a security guard was killed and it’s for this murder that Grant (aka ‘Nick’) ends up being hunted by the FBI led by Agent Cornelius (Terrence Howard). The film then goes on to blend an old-fashioned cat-and-mouse thriller dynamic with political elements, reminiscent of Redford’s former glory in The Three Days of the Condor (1975). Yet, whereas Sydney Pollack’s thriller posited a bleak and cynical view of a ubiquitously corrupt society, Redford’s latest seems hell-bent on reconciliation.
LaBeouf’s Shepard is on a learning curve about the reasons for the actions of the radicals; the FBI are professionals getting on with a job and the film really has no adversary except perhaps for Mimi Lurie (Julie Christie), a former comrade and lover of our protagonist whose unrepentant desire to carry on the fight threatens to send Grant to jail and separate him from his daughter. Their confrontation sums up the political message of The Company You Keep – though injustice still exists and the super rich are doing just fine, it’s time to settle down and look after the children.
The pleasure of the film is not in the complexity or thoroughness of its political analysis of the legacy of sixties radicalism, but rather in seeing old hands return to the fray. Redford is uppermost in this and still has the sparkle that makes him a joy to watch. He’s gathered around him a formidable collection of familiar faces; the aforementioned Sarandon and Christie, alongside Nick Nolte, Chris Cooper, Richard Jenkins, Stanley Tucci and Sam Elliot.
Inadvertently, Redford’s ensemble cast has the effect of making the younger members of the cast – especially LaBeouf – seem all the more bland. Perhaps it simply isn’t fair comparing a developing actor like LaBeouf to the likes of Julie Christie or Nick Nolte, but one can’t help but feel that beneath The Company You Keep lies a melancholic, fond farewell to some of cinema’s greatest talents.
The 69th Venice Film Festival runs from 29 August-8 September. For more of our Venice 2012 coverage, simply follow this link.