Robert Redford is standing on the precipice between yesterday and tomorrow, and The Company You Keep is the filmmaker’s bridge between the two worlds. Invoking the political passion of The Way We Were, and his journalistic fervor of All the President’s Men, Redford uses an old-school framework to produce an absorbing thriller that could only exist in this particular time and place between the paper, analog past and the digital media future. And it’s his best film in years.
Memories and modernity continually swirl around the story of a young journalist and the old fugitive he rips out of hiding. Shia LaBeouf is Ben Shepard, an intrepid reporter struggling at his local paper when a career-making story breaks. After a 30-year hunt, the FBI has finally captured one of the members of the Weather Underground (a fictionalized version of the real-life militant group), charged with the death of a bank guard, at a local gas station. Shepard is tasked with finding out how, after three decades without a trace, the FBI knew that housewife Sharon Solarz (Susan Sarandon) was one of the activists, and exactly when and where to find her.
Shepard works like a modern journalist of the past, scribbling in his notebook as he runs from lead to lead until a seemingly inconsequential strand – local lawyer and father Jim Grant referred Solarz to a fellow attorney – leads the reporter to a huge discovery. Grant is actually Nick Sloan, another wanted Weathermen and a remnant of an old system. In the days before linked computers, criminal databases and Big Brother, Sloan was able to create a new and semi-public life for himself as a people’s rights lawyer in Albany, New York, living undetected as a new man for the last 30 years. Shepard breaks the story and Sloan disappears, eager to clear his name and reunite with his precocious young daughter.
Redford’s film is as much about himself as it is Lem Dobbs’ adaptation of Neil Gordon’s novel. The story is handled with excitedly nostalgic reverence as Redford attempts to break walls between the actors and their characters, between the fictional world and its audience. The film is very particularly cast; it features a who’s who of older talent known as much for their political passions as they are for their formidable acting (Redford, Sarandon and even Julie Christie, playing the long-lost activist he’s struggling to find). Redford rips through the age-typecast stagnancy of Hollywood to reveal players as fiercely passionate and cinematically dynamic as they were decades ago. When Shepard is granted a brief interview with Solarz, she (with a fiery inner resolve) looks at him calmly yet defiantly and dares him to uncover the truth. She’s not convincing him to take her side, but to go on his own journey. Sarandon seems to be, simultaneously, challenging LaBeouf, and by extension, his fellow up-and-coming costars (Brit Marling, Anna Kendrick).
Shepard must hunt for the truth as the fugitive works through his long-dead former life (introducing great, yet sadly brief, appearances by the likes of Chris Cooper, Nick Nolte, Richard Jenkins and Brendan Gleeson). Revisiting the past becomes a blueprint for how to handle the future. The old fuels the new while the analog blends into the digital. Satellite surveillance and Googling merges with old-fashioned cold calls and microfiche. The modern era becomes an aid in the hunt rather than a defining aspect – an alternative to a world lived through smartphone screens.
Again and again the film strives for evenhandedness – this is, after all, about the hunt for the truth rather than blind allegiance. And Redford refuses to demonize either side – the activists made life-ending mistakes in their fervent fight for social progress; the FBI are earnestly trying to bring murderers to justice. (The audience will, however, begin to question the entire country’s competence when Sloan runs to and fro with that famous head of ginger hair, never dyed and rarely covered with a cap, without ever being recognized.)
Nevertheless, that Redford manages to infuse so many ideas and passions into an engaging thriller is a testament to talent that didn’t die with his years of horses, spiders and lambs. This is nostalgia with purpose. This is Redford on the screen – his skill, his passions, his desire to foster new talents – offered to us. There is no moral wrap-up in The Company You Keep; just a passing of a torch of ideas that we can take as we will.