Mark Metcalf

Robert Redford’s “Company” dares too little

"The Company You Keep" could be a gripping film about the fine line between activism and terrorism, but Redford wastes his star-studded cast on melodrama.

By - Apr 19th, 2013 04:00 am
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Robert Redford’s newest film, The Company You Keep, is a political thriller based on a story about the Weather Underground that returns after 40 years when a young journalist investigates himself. Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

Robert Redford’s new film, The Company You Keep, gives us a great deal to be sad about, starting with the wonderful cast that Redford, the director and producer, assembled and then wasted:  Nick Nolte, Richard Jenkins, Susan Sarandon, Julie Christie, Anna Kendrick, Chris Cooper, Shia LeBeouf, Brendan Gleeson, Stanley Tucci, Brit Marling, Terence Howard. All are legitimate movie stars who are also serious actors and have at one time or another given performances that should and will be watched again and again. But not here and not now.

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After establishing a new life in Milwaukee, Weather Underground member Donal Fitzgerald (Nick Nolte) is eventually arrested. Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

Then there’s the story: A group of 1960s radicals, driven into hiding 40 years ago by a revolution-inspired bank robbery gone wrong, are driven out of hiding by the crisis of conscience of one and eventually all of the living members. A little soap opera side plot involves the next generation, the love child of a relationship that was moving too fast, accomplishing too much and changing the world too completely to take the time to raise children to live in it. Since it is about my generation, the story should appeal to me, and it does. But not told this way.

The film does raise some stunningly important ideas that deserve to be questioned and examined. Like the responsibility of the press: What should motivate individual reporters, and corporate owned newspapers and television media? Personal gain or the common good?  What happens when media knows more than law enforcement?

And then there’s the nature of terrorism. We live in an age when lonely, isolated, individuals that we call madmen will walk into an elementary school and murder children, when religious fanatics will turn planes into bombs and fly them into buildings, murdering thousands or when unknown people will detonate bombs in crowds of people who have come together to celebrate the proud history of this country and the discipline of people who train to run marathons, killing and maiming children and mothers and fathers.

A generation ago, less deadly but no less dramatic acts of violence were done in the name of freedom by people who believed they were acting as good citizens. The act was thought to be a symbolic part of the conversation. A generation ago it seemed possible to step back and question the motivation of those individuals. Today it is very difficult to think of them as anything other than evil.  The Company You Keep had an opportunity to talk about that, but it fails.

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Jim Grant/Nick Sloan (Robert Redford) busy at work trying to clear his name of his youthful actions. Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

However, the interesting thing about failure is that you have to try in order to fail. Robert Redford does try. He did set out to make a movie about personal responsibility, about the necessity of being an activist, of taking an active, even aggressive part in the ongoing discussion about government and the doings of government. He did set out to make a movie about the generation that refused to willingly participate in their government’s war, a war they thought unjust and unnecessary.  He did try to make a movie that dares to ask: When is it terrorism and when is it activism?

But Robert Redford is old school. He looks for the melodrama in a situation rather than the reality, and always finds it. He started making films back when all anybody did was set the camera down and film a play. Cinema was a word in a dictionary.

Movies are more active now, more kinetic, they don’t rely on words quite so much. Character carries the action and action describes the idea. Sound and image can communicate. Too much talking drives people to the popcorn counter or out of the theater. The Company You Keep feels like a discussion at a cocktail party filled with smart, educated people who don’t even notice the college kids and the young artists grinding their teeth in resentment while serving them their Cosmopolitans and rumaki.

It’s a shame to waste a cast, a story, and the chance to have a discussion about challenging ideas by putting them all in a movie that might have been daring 40 years ago.

The Company You Keep opens Friday, April 19, at theaters near you.

Categories: Movies

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