Please Note: The images used here are photos provided by Sony Pictures Classics and do not directly reflect the picture quality of the Blu-ray edition under review.
Robert Redford's latest directorial effort is a sort of coming full circle, both for this most famous of actor-directors and for the American cinema itself. Redford, along with Dustin Hoffman, memorably played journalist Bob Woodward in Alan J. Pakula's 1976 Watergate film, All the President's Men, and The Company You Keep is the capper on a long string of millennial/postmillennial films that attempt to bring the same kind of intelligent, engaged dramatized political analysis to the big screen that Pakula so smartly and coolly did in his '70s heyday with President's Men and The Parallax View -- films like the late Sydney Pollack's The Interpreter, Michael Mann's The Insider, Stephen Gaghan's Syriana, Doug Liman's Fair Game, Tony Gilroy's Michael Clayton, Billy Ray's Breach, etc. Redford's picture, based on the novel by Neil Gordon, is a well-polished fact-fiction hybrid that takes as its subject the former members of the Weather Underground -- a radical anti-Vietnam-War group that, from the late '60s through the '70s, committed armed robberies and bombings in the name of giving complacent Americans a wake-up call to the murderousness of their government, and whose remaining members went truly, deeply underground, assuming new identities and living more or less "straight" lives, after a 1981 holdup that went wrong and deadly finally dissolved the group. The jumping-off point for Gordon's far-ranging conjecture (articulated here through a screenplay by The Limey and Haywire scribe Lem Dobbs) is the shocking, widely reported 1993 case of Katherine Ann Power -- an anti-Vietnam War activist/anarchist involved in the Weather Underground's more mainstream parent group, Students for a Democratic Society -- who had participated in a 1970 crime that took a similarly unforeseen turn into violence and murder, and who turned herself in after 23 years under an assumed identity.
Gordon, Redford, and Dobbs have updated Power's long-time-coming change of heart to the present day, and make their fictional "Katherine Ann Power" figure former Weather Underground member Sharon Solarz (Susan Sarandon), whose crisis of conscience, life-destroying confession, imprisonment, and willingness to discus her history and present state of mind with hungry journalist Ben Shepard (Shia LaBeouf) has massive implications not only for herself and the pushy, ethically unformed Shepard, but also for her former colleagues, foremost among whom are Nick Sloan (Redford), now a widower and single father of a precocious 11-year-old girl (Jackie Evancho) who's made a new life for himself as a respectable left-leaning lawyer, and Mimi (Julie Christie), Sloan's former lover from the WU days, who's continued the struggle at her own personal expense, sacrificing to her principles any semblance of a stable or normal life. It even shatters the deepest assumptions of Shepard's love interest (Brit Marling, Another Earth), the collegiate daughter of the former Ann Arbor police chief (Brendan Gleeson, The General) Shepard is trying to use as a source in his investigation of Sloan, whom Solarz's confession has turned into a hot-topic fugitive from the FBI, forced into a race against time to find and meet with the well-hidden Mimi, who may be able to clear his name.
That's not even all of the film's convoluted story (there's also Shepard's editor (Stanley Tucci) and Sloan's brother (Chris Cooper), who both figure prominently), but this is mostly well-managed, Big Sleep-style convolution -- intriguing, alluring, slowly savored, not overburdening, and dealt with sleekly by Dobbs and Redford, who pull their many narrative strands together and unite them under a shared purpose, a moral concern/question whose urgency they illustrate well: Out of all of these characters who aspire to some kind of integrity -- the would-be "serious" journalist, the former Weather Underground members (who also include Richard Jenkins, Nick Nolte, and Sam Elliott) whose sharp differences of opinion regarding what the right, morally justifiable tactics for a peace movement should be are dredged up once more by Solarz's confession -- which one of their conflicting ideas of integrity is actually feasible, actually free of the taint of hypocrisy? This is the question from which The Company You Keep, ostensibly a propulsive manhunt/"thriller" picture, actually derives its greatest suspense, and it provides for an ample supply to keep us uncertain, wrapped up in the string of revelations that further nuance and complicate these characters, all of whom have hard-earned ideas about what's right and wrong, and all of whom consequently have spent more time than is comfortable in the moral and ethical gray zone. To Redford and company's abiding credit, and despite a too-pat ending, the film doesn't decide for us which character's definition of integrity really wins the day; there probably is no "winner" as such in what the film has the wisdom to see as matters of convictions and loyalties that are not zero-sum or all-or-nothing games. Even the over-tidiness of that ending, in fact, is played in such a way -- smooth, assured, subtle, and skilled, though not slick -- that it comes off (as does most of the rest of a plot that, upon later reflection, has all the neat, implausible symmetry of a great Dickens novel or melodrama) much better than it otherwise might have, the alchemy of Redford's, Dobbs's, and the actors' storytelling rendering the bulk of the films' coincidences convincing, their improbability mostly irrelevant to how involved and affected we are.
Redford is the kind of good-craftsman filmmaker whose pictures are really only as good as the material he's working from and the collaborators, behind and in front of the camera, he chooses (and his taste in either is far from reliable; Legend of Bagger Vance, anyone?), but working with Dobbs's very good script, a stellar and committed all-star ensemble cast, and Jane Eyre cinematographer Adriano Goldman (with whom Redford creates one of the film's very strongest suits, a visual approach that's patient, restrained, and gorgeous in its chilly clarity, giving rise to impressively inventive two-shots and silhouettes, shallow-focus compositions, and a paranoid sense of space, all lending a cool gravity of which Pakula himself would have been proud), and with The Company You Keep, he's made what is easily his best film since 1994's Quiz Show (itself his first above-par movie since Ordinary People in 1980; his really good work as a director comes few and far between, obviously, but you can't ever quite count Redford out). That isn't at all to say that The Company You Keep is free of real flaws. The stuff between Redford and little Evancho is cutesy, sitcom-perfect, and disposable; the final "climactic" speech delivered by Redford to LaBeouf is embarrassingly platitudinous; and the score by Cliff Martinez (Drive, Spring Breakers), while lovely, atmospheric, and Eno-like for the more contemplative moments, succumbs to typical, pounding, aggressive-sequencer heaviness in the "action" scenes, of which the film has a few too many that feel obligatory and clichéd. But as an exemplar of that neo-Pakula genre of accessible political-thriller drama, it's decent and then some. At its best -- e.g., the beautifully shot, written, and played fireplace-lit confrontation between the central former lovers, Redford's "reformed" Nick and Christie's true-believer Mimi -- it's a sharp, smart, very entertaining, and surprisingly deep and thoughtful look into the large matter of the sticky, unavoidable relationship between the personal and the political, of responsibility taken, misplaced, or neglected. Every once in a while, we need a reminder that "mainstream" (bigger-budget, star-studded, straightforwardly narrative) filmmaking need neither be obnoxiously loud and juvenile nor grandiosely bloated with put-on "prestige," and The Company You Keep is a prime specimen of that balancing act pulled off to good success. It has a head on its shoulders, its heart in the right place, and (more often than not) the means to bring those admirable qualities to life through some overall solid, often very nicely done traditional/classical filmmaking.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
This widescreen transfer of the film, preserving the original theatrical aspect ratio of 2.40:1, is very fine indeed. Cinematographer Adriano Goldman's overall cooler palette appears perfectly preserved, with the green of leaves, the sun glimmering off of a lake, the flickering oranges and shadows of a fireplace scene -- every little variegation in the image, which is often shallow-focus or very carefully, very lowly lit, and thus not at all assured to be done justice to in a transfer to digital media -- rendered precisely, with the film's lovely, old-fashioned celluloid texture left intact by only judicious use of any digital clean-up tools, and no compression artifacts (edge enhancement, aliasing, etc.) in sight anywhere.
The film has a more subtle than usual for a picture with action/thriller tendencies, but still "big" sound design, and the disc's DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track presents that complex, very full soundtrack -- the rumbling flap of a helicopter following the bird's onscreen trajectory from behind us to in front of us, the clacking of trains, Cliff Martinez's sometimes very detailed, subtle, timbre-dependent soundtrack, as well as the more basic/essential things like dialogue or nighttime-cricket soundscapes -- with impressive directionality, fullness, richness, and clarity, with the entire sonic gamut presented very clean, vivid, and immediate, and without a trace of distortion or imbalance.
--Two behind-the-scenes featurettes, both of which excerpt some fleeting glimpses of the shoot with promotional-mode interviews with Redford, LaBeouf, Jenkins, Marling, and Christie: "The Movement," (12 min.), which focuses on the Weather Underground itself, as thumbnailed (sort of comically by the wide-eyed LaBeouf and Marling, with more knowledge, wisdom, and insight by Redford and, most especially, long-time committed left-winger Christie) by the cast; and "The Script, Preparation and the Cast," (17 min.), which is the exact same thing, except excerpting the bits of the interviews and shoot that have more to do with the process of making the film and the meaning of the project to the director and various actors. This is all very back-patting, sanitized stuff -- everyone putting their best foot forward for the good of the film, which is understandable enough -- but the belief of each participant in the work they're doing, and their comfort with and appreciation of one another, seems sincere enough, so if it's not as revelatory as it could have been, it's also not bad.
--Some even more explicitly promotional material: An "On the red carpet" montage from the film's New York premiere (2 min.) and 13 minutes of excerpts from a press conference hosted by critic/professor Annette Insdorf, with Redford, Tucci, Marling, and Jackie Evancho on the panel, from afterwards. From behind the microphones, fielding (softball, I have to say) questions from the audience, director and cast members are all at their affable, professional, mutual-admiration-society best, which is understandable and not at all tough to watch, but this isn't an in-depth or revealing glimpse into the process of making the film so much as it is a celebration of like-minded creative types who've evidently enjoyed and appreciated working together.
--The film's theatrical trailer, on top of a handful of previews for other Sony Pictures Classics releases.
Robert Redford may be a father figure (in both the beloved/appreciated-elder and more ambivalent Freudian senses) to American independent cinema, but his own best work from behind the camera -- Quiz Show, Ordinary People -- has always been in a more classical, traditional vein, the aspiration being an interesting, relevant story told accessibly, intelligently, compassionately, and affectingly. He mostly attains those worthy goals with The Company You Keep, a drawn-from-life but fictionalized tale of participants (Redford, Susan Sarandon, Nick Nolte, Richard Jenkins, Julie Christie) in the radical anti-Vietnam-War group The Weather Underground who, having committed an unplanned murder during one of their actions three decades ago and vanishing under new names, are now forced to resurface, their normal lives and new identities threatened by crises of conscience and internecine conflicts buried but not forgotten, and their morally and ethically critical relationship with society and its institutions now embodied by the lurking presence of a bright young journalist (Shia LaBeouf) with ambiguous motivations for hunting down the histories of these fugitives, whose FBI-pursued trail has become newly hot. Its concessions to Hallmark moments and dutiful infusions of clichéd "thriller" adrenaline, though occasional, are too many and keep it from reaching the higher creative peaks it otherwise might have. But The Company You Keep easily survives those problems to remain an enjoyably and gracefully well-done act of storytelling, a star-studded drama and unapologetic entertainment that nevertheless manages to have a genuine, complex thought or two in its head and, even more surprising and gratifying, see them through in a way that avoids oversimplification and doesn't sell them short. Recommended.