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The Company You Keep

April 16, 2013
The Company You Keep

You may not need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows, but can even a Weatherman tell you why it blew? If Robert Redford’s new film, The Company You Keep is any indication there’s a sizable chunk of former baby boomers who are reaching middle age and wondering what the hell happened in their youth. Somewhat less surprisingly, they’re finding that the new youth don’t really care; ask someone under thirty — the only ones you can trust, right? — about the Weather Underground and they’re more likely to tell you about a website to see if it’s going to rain than anything about the Students for a Democratic Society. I doubt that this is the film that’s going to change that fact, but it does manage to throw the whole messy conscience of the former counterculture out on the table where we can get a good look at it.

Sometime in the early 1970s, a bank robbery in Michigan went bad, and a guard was shot. One of the suspects was caught and confessed early on, fingering three others who all went deep underground. Thirty-some years later, Sharon Solarz (Susan Sarandon) is arrested at a gas station in a small town outside Albany; she’d been living as a housewife and mother just across the state line.

Ben Shepard (Shia LaBeouf) is a reporter in Albany, and his editor (Stanley Tucci) is livid that they got scooped by big out-of-town papers like New York Times. So Shepard goes digging and finds out from an old flame (Anna Kendrick) now conveniently placed at the FBI field office that Solarz had been speaking with local organic grocer Billy Cusimano (Stephen Root). Cusimano had reached out to public-interest lawyer Jim Grant (Redford), to handle the case, which Grant waved him off, citing the recent loss of his wife and the burden of raising his daughter, Isabel (Jackie Evancho), alone.

But it’s not exactly a huge surprise that Grant is actually Nick Sloan, one of the four suspects. He manages to place Isabel in the care of his estranged brother (Chris Cooper) and takes off on his own again, but for what purpose? Shepard follows, determined to root out The Truth. And so does the FBI team, who also want to find the last suspect, Mimi Lurie (Julie Christie).

The trail leads through a few notable guest stars (Nick Nolte, Richard Jenkins), and back to where it all began, in Michigan, where Shepard tries to work the robbery’s original lead investigator (Brendan Gleeson) through his law-student daughter (Brit Marling).

Redford and screenwriter Lem Dobbs clearly hold firm to the myth of the Intrepid Reporter, though Ben Shepard is neither Bob Woodward nor Carl Bernstein. Still, LaBeouf does a fine job when given a decently serious part instead of yet another well-meaning-but-awful Sam Witwicky clone, despite being made up to look confusingly similar to Josh Radnor. But Shepard and his chase are sort of beside the point — a traditional narrative through-line to provide tension and interest, and to prevent the film from degenerating into a talky series of monologues and dialogues among the older cast.

This is the real story. Everyone who joined in the counterculture in the ’60s has to live with themselves today, which is not to say that it is or should be difficult. Do they simply go about their lives, maybe with a broader understanding of the human condition? do they take up the fight by other means, in the classroom or the courtroom? do they hold to their anti-establishment line to the point of self-parody? If they have caused harm, do they carry their regret silently, or must it eventually come out, and when?

And what, if anything, do they tell their children? When do you have the hard conversation, coming clean with them about what happened when you were their age? Or do you just leave sleeping dogs lie, letting future generations grow up with the vague idea that there once was a war, and some people protested against it, and it was all so very long ago, shrouded in a purple haze, soon to be forgotten?

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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