Niagara Gazette

April 23, 2013

CALLERI: A superb cast is one of the many highlights of 'The Company You Keep'

Michael Calleri
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — The title of the new political thriller “The Company You Keep” not only applies to its theme of ’60s radicalism, but also to the stellar cast that gets the audience energized and has them glad to be watching their work. Good film performers make you forget who they are in real life. They make you eager to follow the characters they are playing, to go on an adventure with their reel-time personas.

These days a cast rarely gets much better than who’s in this engaging and well-made movie. It’s like being at a great party after the Oscars.

Robert Redford directs and stars in the picture. He has an Academy Award for directing “Ordinary People.” Also on-screen are Susan Sarandon, Julie Christie, and Chris Cooper, all Oscar winners for acting. You’ll also see Academy Award nominees Richard Jenkins, Stanley Tucci, Terence Howard, Anna Kendrick, and Nick Nolte. And as an added bonus, you have Shia LaBeouf, Brendan Gleeson, and Sam Elliott. There’s not a slacker performance in the group.

It’s a terrific experience watching this cast, especially the Oscar-winning or nominated older stars. Robert is now 76. Christie and Nolte are 72. Jenkins is 66. Sarandon is 65. Cooper is just 61. And non-nominee Elliott, whose first role was as Card Player #2 in “Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid” in 1969, should have been nominated for “Lifeguard.” He’s 68 and still delivers his dialogue with that deep, slow, resonant voice of his. It sounds like syrup made of liquid velvet.

Based on Neil Gordon’s novel, “The Company You Keep” is rooted in the history of an era. In the 1960s, protests gripped students across the globe, including in the United States. In America, discontent over the Vietnam War triggered mass demonstrations and police responses. Violence often flared. Some radical protesters plotted the bombings of banks, corporate symbols, and university and government buildings from the late 1960s through the mid-1970s. They were part of the Weather Underground, which was the revolutionary arm of the Students for a Democratic Society.

Four decades after their days of rage, some Underground members are leading relatively ordinary lives. They are quiet, productive contributors to their communities. However, the FBI hasn’t forgotten the past. The job of tracking down and arresting the co-conspirators has fallen to a young agent (Howard). He’s helped when a Vermont housewife (Sarandon), having reflected on her past actions, including her participation in a bank robbery during which a security guard was killed, turns herself over to the FBI.

That will create a ripple effect that alters the lives of those with whom she once associated. All have changed their identities, but the FBI agent uses the housewife’s confession to ramp up the search for the others. One man who is touched by this new pressure is a public interest lawyer (Redford) who lives in Saugerties in the Hudson River Valley. A widower raising his pre-teen daughter, he’s one of the Underground members wanted for murdering the guard. He insists that he wasn’t at the bank and goes on the run to fight to clear his name. However, the lawyer needs another member of the group (Christie), now an aged marijuana dealer in California, to back-up his story. She still despises the government and what she sees as an America controlled by corporations. She refuses to help anyone. She challenges his loyalties.

Into this mix enters a young reporter for the Albany Times-Union (LaBeouf), as well as another former activist (Jenkins), who teaches at the university level. The reporter makes it his mission to examine the past activities of the Underground, what the FBI is now doing, and whether or not the lawyer is a liar or a truly innocent man. The college professor just wants to be left alone. The action flows to New York City and the California coast, and ultimately to a secret hideout, a cabin in the Michigan woods.

The movie is filled with intelligent ideas and serious arguments that are part of the dialogue, which is a rare thing these days. The screenplay by Lem Dobbs is never dull, partly because it keeps the story moving and partly because the acting is so rich. Many scenes stand out. An especially good one is when Sarandon and LaBoeuf, former radical and fresh-faced reporter, discuss political extremism rising out of student unrest. Redford and Christie have an equally strong scene during which right and wrong and collateral damage are debated.

With Redford’s calm and controlled direction and crisp cinematography from Adriano Goldman, “The Company You Keep” tells a believable and convincing story. As for the acting, with this cast, you expect high-powered, and you get it.

Michael Calleri reviews films for Night and Day. Contact him at moviecolumn@gmail.com.