Paint by numbers 

Stars can't carry The Company You Keep

There's nothing too terribly thrilling going on in Robert Redford's latest political thriller, The Company You Keep, but at least it has a lot of good actors in it. The film is about what idealism and radical extremism look like with age, and it asks questions about retribution and responsibility. Redford directs the film as well as stars. He looks exactly the same as he did 20 years ago, which is suspicious and spooky. He's 76 in real life, but it's unclear how old his character is supposed to be.

Susan Sarandon plays former Weather Underground member Sharon Solarz, who has been in hiding for 30 years because of her involvement in an armed robbery that resulted in the death of a guard. The Weather Underground people were either political activists or domestic terrorists, depending on whom you ask, responsible for a series of bombings in protest of the Vietnam War and other American-sponsored atrocities in the late '60s and '70s. (The film is a little light on the details. For a more serious and in-depth look at the movement, you might want to check out Sam Green's excellent 2002 documentary The Weather Underground.)

It's time for Sharon to give up the ghost, and she's dramatically arrested at a gas station on her way to turn herself in. Ben Shepard (Shia LaBeouf) is the plucky young reporter at the Albany Sun Times assigned to the story. Her arrest leads Ben to Jim Grant (Redford), a mild mannered lawyer whom Ben discovers through hard-hitting journalism is actually Nick Sloan, the Weather Underground member wanted for the same armed robbery incident that Sharon's in the clink for. Nick's a recent widower and the father of an 11-year-old daughter who talks and acts like no preteen ever would in real life, but never mind.

click to enlarge In this scene, Robert Redford schedules his next jowl rejuvenation.
  • In this scene, Robert Redford schedules his next jowl rejuvenation.

Nick drops his kid off with his brother (Chris Cooper) and swiftly gives the FBI (spearheaded by Terrence Howard) the slip. This sequence, involving a hotel lobby and some subway cars, makes up about half of the film's total action. Nick's not guilty, of course. He travels from Albany to Chicago and finally Michigan's Upper Peninsula in an attempt to find the one person from his past capable of clearing his name, you know, for his daughter's sake.

When it comes to the state of newspaper journalism in America today, the movie has it right: Ben asks his editor (Stanley Tucci) for money to follow Nick Sloan to Michigan, and the editor basically laughs him out of the office. "I just cut the sports section," he says. But Ben is a man on a mission and he follows Nick on his own dime.

It's fun to see Nick meet up with old members of the movement, especially because all of them are played by aging superstar actors. There's Nick Nolte as the haggard old man in the lumber yard, Richard Jenkins as the college professor who just wants to put the whole thing behind him, Julie Christie as the dogmatic, stubborn liberal, and so on. A lot of these scenes have the feel of a David Mamet stage play more than anything. There's a lot of stunted exposition going on, like in this phone conversation between Robert Redford and Chris Cooper: "You are my brother. We haven't seen each other in 20 years."

The film is at its best when the characters talk frankly with one another about the politics of the situation, which doubtless you're aware of by now: The U.S. government killed millions in a pointless war and some young people went to increasingly violent means to try to stop it. If the movie had been more about that, it would have been onto something. But as a thriller, The Company You Keep is pretty by-the-numbers.

The Company You Keep continues at the Wilma.

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