Film review: Principled Versus Pragmatic in ‘The Company You Keep’

The Company You Keep 1Like several of my colleagues I got into journalism because John Seigenthaler was my hero from the first time I heard him speak about his profession. Around the same time this amazing, encouraging and remarkable man was getting me to imagine what “comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable” (to borrow loosely from Finley Peter Dunne) might mean in its noblest sense my parents took me to see All the President’s Men with Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford.

How amazing it was to watch Hoffman play Carl Bernstein and Redford conjure Hollywood’s version of Bob Woodward, who certainly had prominent roles (though not the only ones) in uncovering the labyrinth connections between slush funds, enemy lists and a break-in at the Watergate building in Washington, D.C., that eventually led all the way to the White House.

The Company You Keep 6I watched Nixon’s resignation speech with my parents on the night of Aug. 8, 1974 on a hotel TV (we were on a trip at the time) and recall listening to radio coverage the next day when Gerald Ford was sworn in as President while my father drove us to our next destination. Two years later, watching the film version of Woodward and Bernstein’s 1974 book of the same name, I was too young to understand a great deal of what I saw and heard, but I did understand journalists at their best could shine a light on darkness and make our society and nation better for it.

Now all these years later we have Redford directing and starring in The Company You Keep. There’s a shade of the political thriller to this flick that has echoes of that 1976 movie; it’s fair to say there is also a distinct note of 1975’s Three Days of the Condor too. I wouldn’t have minded (mentioning a movie that came along when I was older and could therefore grasp more of it on first showing) some Running on Empty as well, but who would begrudge anyone a good Sidney Lumet film?

The Company You Keep 3Sadly the news to report is not as noble for my bruised and battered profession this time out as it was in the days of All the President’s Men. The ambitious young journalist this time is the fictional and very obnoxious Ben Shepard (Shia LaBeouf), who certainly isn’t after truth as much as he is a career-making story. He’s a cocky, sometimes bullying tick with the ethics of a pole-cat and the kind of “don’t trouble your pretty little head” pick-up lines I’ve been told went out with the Eisenhower Administration; to get a scoop – Ha! The myth that such a thing exists in the Internet age is laughable – and show his ever-suffering editor (Stanley Tucci) a thing or two he first exploits a former college flame (Anna Kendrick) now working with the F.B.I. to give him information he shouldn’t have following the arrest of a suburban housewife (Susan Sarandon). She turns out to be a 30-years-ago left-wing Weather Underground fugitive from justice named Sharon Solarz.

The Company You Keep 7Our all-too-enterprising cub reporter gets a tip from Billy Cusimano (Stephen Root, who long ago showed he can play any character well) that leads him to the law office of Jim Grant (Redford). Before long, Shepard has figured out that Grant – a widower with a young daughter (Jacqueline Evancho, who in addition to her well-known singing talents shows she can act as well) and a practice in public-interest law – is actually Nick Sloan, a fugitive since 1979 following a bank robbery in Michigan where a security officer was shot and killed.

Of course, the zealous fourth-estate rep isn’t the only one who’d like to track the still-dashing Redford’s character down – F.B.I. Agent Cornelius (Terrence Howard, making like a modern-day Javert) certainly wants Sloan booked for murder one. In Michigan, a retired police officer who worked that bank robbery investigation (Brendan Gleeson) seems more inclined to leave the past behind – wonder why? You’ll need to buy a ticket to answer that and other questions.

The Company You Keep 4A 2003 novel of the same name by Neil Gordon furnished the foundation for a script by Lem Dobbs; principles versus practicalities, and the fall-out (good and bad) from an era that essentially started with a cry for the civil rights of all Americans, witnessed violent assassinations and carnage at home and abroad and ended in the stunning betrayal of public trust labeled Watergate are plentiful in this piece. Happily the film leaves us to decide how we feel about that – no one watching will be surprised that Shepard’s eventual chance at redemption must wait until the youngster realizes questions are usually easy while answers are often hard. But the movie’s ending nevertheless jars because it’s a pat Hollywood finish that feels phony following the preceding two hours.

The Company You Keep 5The acting in The Company You Keep is top-notch, but when you have the aforementioned players along with Julie Christie, Nick Nolte, Sam Elliott, Richard Jenkins, Chris Cooper and Matthew Kimbrough (among others) that is not surprising. Redford’s direction is fine too, and if I have to tell you about that part of his career I suggest looking it up online when we’re not together here.

Adriano Goldman (also DP on the upcoming film version of August: Osage County) deserves high marks for his cinematography, showing as much knowledge about the mood his shots encourage as he does the perspective by which we should view this story. And Cliff Martinez (a former drummer known for his work with the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Captain Beefheart before his film scores for such movies as Traffic and Drive) has composed contemporary music with a retro-thriller pulse that felt appropriate looking at some acting faces like Redford and Christie’s that many of us have enjoyed seeing for decades.

The Company You Keep (www.thecompanyyoukeepfilm.com) opens today (April 26) at Regal Green Hills Stadium 16 and Carmike Cinemas Thoroughbred 20. Rated R for language, 125 min. Directed by Robert Redford; written by Lem Dobbs, based on the novel by Neil Gordon. Starring Robert Redford, Shia LaBeouf, Julie Christie, Susan Sarandon, Brendan Gleeson, Terrence Howard, Anna Kendrick, Chris Cooper, Sam Elliott, Stanley Tucci, Nick Nolte, Richard Jenkins, Stephen Root, Jacqueline Evancho, Matthew Kimbrough and Brit Marling.

 

*Photos by Doane Gregory courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

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About Evans Donnell

Evans Donnell is the chief theater, film and opera critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He wrote reviews and features about theater, opera and classical music for The Tennessean from 2002 to 2011. He was the theater, film and opera critic for ArtNowNashville.com from 2011 to 2012. Donnell has also contributed to The Sondheim Review, Back Stage, The City Paper (Nashville), the Nashville Banner, The (Bowling Green, Ky.) Daily News and several other publications since beginning his professional journalism career in 1985 with The Lebanon (Tenn.) Democrat. He was selected as a fellow for the 2004 National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, and for National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) arts journalism institutes for theater and musical theater at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism in 2006 and classical music and opera at the Columbia University School of Journalism in 2009. He has also been an actor (member of Actors Equity Association and SAG-AFTRA), founding and running AthensSouth Theatre from 1996 to 2001 and appearing in Milos Forman's "The People vs Larry Flynt" among other credits. Donnell is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association (www.americantheatrecritics.org).