The Federal Bureau of Investigation describes the group as being a domestic terror organization, yet others see the group's violent acts as an appropriate response to the political unrest created by the Vietnam War. So what exactly is the Weather Underground Organization, and what justifications did they have in carrying out the attacks they did on this country?
Robert Redford, in his ninth outing as director, attempts to answer this question and many others in the new film The Company You Keep. Redford directs an all star cast that includes Shia LeBeouf, Julie Christie, Susan Sarandon, Nick Nolte, Chris Cooper, Terrence Howard, Stanley Tucci, Richard Jenkins, Anna Kendrick, Brendan Gleeson, and Sam Elliott.
Redford also places himself in the lead role, crafting what can best be described as his best performance since 2005's An Unfinished Life.
The film opens with the arrest of Sharon Solarz (Sarandon), a former Weather Underground Organization member whose involvement in a bank robbery gone wrong ended with the death of a off duty security guard. Once Solarz's arrest becomes public knowledge, a host of other Weather Underground Organization members, including Jim Grant (Redford), again find themselves on the run from authorities. Ben Shepard, an eager newspaper reporter played by LeBeouf, is fast on the case. As he begins to question why Solarz turned herself in, he begins to uncover more about the Weather Underground Organization and its members. He soon begins to suspect that Grant is actually a former member of the organization and may have had something to do with the bank robbery. Once Grant finds out that Shepard is on to him, he leaves his daughter and leads the FBI on a wild chase that brings him into contact with his former acquaintances. The question is whether Grant's fleeing is a last ditch effort to leave the country for good or an attempt to clear his name.
For a film with such an ambitious subject matter and plot, The Company You Keep falls short in what audiences can except. The Weather Underground Organization is an incredibly intriguing organization, one which had such strong opposition to the Vietnam War that they were willing to carry out terrorist attacks within their own country. The film briefly touches on this through news reel footage, and many of the characters try to justify the acts of the organization. Still, none of it allows the audience to find out more about the real life group. For a film tackling such a controversial subject, it seems largely removed from the facts. It is almost impossible to watch this film and not envision a more detailed film that provides insight into the long history of the group. In all truth, I almost would have enjoyed a longer movie. That's something that I do not say very often, but a longer running time would have allowed The Company You Keep to weave both its fictional and factual subplots together.
Aside from the story of the film, the performances also fall a little short. It's not that any of the performances are particularly bad, it's just that many of the actors seemed completely wasted. The film has one of the most impressive ensembles in recent memory, yet few of the performances stay with you after the film ends. That's mostly due to the screen time of each character. Most of them briefly enter into the film, only to exit moments later. In many respects, some of the characters seem dispensable. With the exception of Redford and Sarandon's characters, I found myself caring for a small number of the characters. These are all great actors that are onscreen, but not knowing their character's motivations doesn't help the cause.
Still, there are strong points within the film. As noted, Redford's performances is rather effective. He plays a man that in conflicted with his past role as a Weather Underground member and his present role as a single father. His actions are believable and there is a very special relationship that he has with his onscreen daughter. He also pretty good chemistry with actress Julie Christie. Susan Sarandon also continues her great string of supporting roles. As Solarz, she is the only character that seems to justify her activities as a Weather Underground member. As viewers we may not agree with her reasons, but we also can't help but listen to her. By the time Solarz exits the plot, we can't shake her from our memory and she proves to be a more in depth character than we were initially lead to believe.
The script and score are also of note. Lem Dobbs writes a great script with carefully considered dialogue. While the execution of the script in its entirety may not be spot on, it is impossible to ignore what Dobbs writes. Helping to intensify the dramatic tension within the script is the music by Cliff Martinez. As a composer, Martinez has written scores for films like Contagion and Drive. Much like the score in those films, the score in The Company You Keep is quietly effective. It builds nicely on what is already onscreen and doesn't overpower any of the other elements of the film. It also never tells the audience what to feel or think with respect to characters and events.
So where does that leave the film as a whole? It is obvious that there are some shortcomings in the execution of the plot. On top of that, the majority of the characters are underutilized. Still, The Company You Keep is a good film. Within Redford's directing career, it lies somewhere between the masterful Quiz Show and the overpraised 1980 Best Picture winner Ordinary People. Its a film with flaws, sure, but it is also a film that keeps you thinking and it drives you to find out more about the Weather Underground Organization. That is rather high praise for a film and ultimately it is this realization that tells me to suggest this as a casual watch.