“The Company You Keep” is a crime thriller, a chase movie at its heart — only it has more heart than most of this genre, plus a dollop of American history.
The fact that Robert Redford directed and leads an all-star cast adds measurably to the fun.
Redford plays attorney Nick Sloan, who has lived under an alias for decades. A former member of the Weather Underground, he’s a wanted man since these 1960s radical political activists robbed a bank, killing a guard.
His cover is jeopardized when a fellow activist (Susan Sarandon) decides to turn herself in. Nick, whose wife recently died, hands his 11-year-old daughter off to his brother (Chris Cooper) and goes on the lam, with an FBI team (Terrence Howard plays its leader) in hot pursuit.
The story is complicated by Ben Shepard (Shia LaBeouf), an ambitious young newspaper reporter whose ethics are questionable and whose attitude about those he hurts is cavalier at the least. He’s usually in some kind of trouble with his editor (Stanley Tucci).
But he’s better at following Nick’s trail than the FBI.
As Nick dashes from Milwaukee to Michigan to Illinois, he connects with other former ’60s radicals, some of whom are more glad to see him than others.
I got a real kick out of Nick Nolte as Don, the shady manager of a lumberyard who provides Nick with a car and a contact. Richard Jenkins, who plays a college history professor, worries only about his professional reputation if his past comes to light.
“Now we’re just a story told to children,” he tells Nick of their once headline-grabbing methods of protesting against federal policy.
Another figure in the story is a retired Michigan police chief (Brendan Gleeson), who has his own secret to protect. Brit Marling, as his daughter, and Anna Kendrick, as an FBI agent, play love interests to LaBeouf.
Eventually it becomes clear that Nick wants a rendezvous with Mimi (Julie Christie), another Weather Underground fugitive (Sam Elliott has a cameo as her husband), who’s dealing large quantities of pot on the California coast.
The movie revisits the politics of the anti-war movement without becoming too preachy or taking sides, and it doesn’t justify violence as a form of protest. Still, for some who were around back then, it remains a divisive issue. Personally, I think the movie might have been more interesting — certainly more substantive — had it delved more into the moral/political debate than it did.
But looking back at that slice of American history through the lens of time makes this much more interesting than your standard chase movie, though the chase is handled well and is often suspenseful. The cost of keeping a secret, and the cost of revealing it, gives extra emotional traction to the story.
LaBeouf’s character gives a black eye to the profession of reporting, though most of what plays out in the movie is at least plausible. I’ve known characters like this.
I was much more interested in seeing great actors like Sarandon, Gleeson, Nolte, Jenkins and especially Redford and Christie show us they’re as good at character work as they ever were.
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