Personally, I can’t hear Robert Redford utter the word “secrets” without my mind drifting back to Sneakers, the 1992 minor cult classic in which Redford portrayed a computer hacker and former countercultural leader who avoids arrest and goes underground for twenty-five years before his identity is discovered and used against him. The film bears more than a few similarities to recently-released The Company You Keep, specifically in the way it relies on Redford’s legend as a movie star of the counterculture era. However, there are central differences between the two films. Sneakers had wit, insight, and style; Company has none.
It is an altogether dreary affair, a milquetoast political thriller with no thrills and very little politics. Redford stars as Jim Grant, former leader of the Weather Underground who has been hiding out under an assumed name since the 1960s. A bank robbery to fund their activities ended in the death of a security guard, and it broke up the activist/terrorist group, leaving he and his friends wanted for murder. After one of them (Susan Sarandon) gets caught forty years later, a nosy, mostly unlikeable young journalist (Shia LaBeouf) ferrets out Grant’s true identity, and the senior activist is forced to leave his young daughter and set out on a trip to see all his old friends in an effort to clear his name.
From that point on, there is not much of a story. Think of it as a road trip through Middle America with stops at the homes of some of America’s finest character actors, including Richard Jenkins, Stephen Root, Julie Christie, Sam Elliot, and an impossibly gruff Nick Nolte. But the trip never adds up to much because the film doesn’t bother to ask the right questions. Because it is about a controversial political topic, you would expect Company to be provocative, but it’s not. A proper story would dramatize Grant’s ambivalence over his actions. But Redford prefers to focus on whether Grant was present at the bank robbery murder, making the political motivations of the Weather Underground – and whether their crimes were truly justified – only background material for a conventional innocent-man-on-the-run story.
Those concerned with the film’s politics would call this preaching to the choir, except Redford can’t even really be bothered to preach. The film assumes the audience’s sympathy for Grant and his cronies, so it never bothers to earn it. Instead, it insists that we root for Grant by saddling him with a dead wife and an impossibly cute young daughter, far easier than actually earning our allegiance through his actions. Typically, audiences don’t mind it when movies manipulate them into feeling something for their characters (in fact, you could argue that this is why we go to the movies in the first place – to feel something), but we do feel insulted when a movie panders so shamelessly to earn our sympathy. Making Grant a lonely widower who also happens to be a great father feels tacked on and unearned, like almost everything else in this disappointing film.
If anyone succeeds here, it is LeBeouf, who manages to imbue his opportunistic reporter with the kind of moral complexity that is missing almost everywhere else. It’s been years since LeBeouf impressed me in a role, but his willingness to be unlikeable makes him a standout in a film that largely declines to take any chances. With this subject matter, timidity in narrative should be considered a cardinal sin.
My Rating: Skip it Altogether