Judge Michael Nazarewycz has gone underground.
You can't escape the past.
I love newspapers, and I live close enough to DC to have easy access to my favorite, The Washington Post. I was originally attracted to the Post because it's the paper of Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein, and Ben Bradlee—those newsmen central to the fall of the Nixon Administration.
So it seems fitting that I watched The Company You Keep this week. It stars Robert Redford (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid), who played Nixon-toppling Post reporter Bob Woodward in All the President's Men. It features a lead character who is a newspaper reporter. And in real-world news, Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon.com, purchased The Washington Post this week, in an old-school/new-world mash-up for the ages.
Facts of the Case
Ben Shepard (Shia LaBeouf, Transformers) is an investigative reporter for the Albany Sun Times. When the FBI captures 30-year fugitive Sharon Solarz (Susan Sarandon, Thelma and Louise), a long-ago member of the radical anti-Vietnam War group The Weather Underground, Shepard sees a chance to break an even bigger story. His investigation leads him to small-town attorney Jim Grant (Robert Redford), a widowed father of an 11-year-old who is not who he presents himself to be.
When Grant, who is suspected in a murder during HIS Underground days, is the next target of the FBI, he leaves his daughter in the care of his brother (Chris Cooper, American Beauty) and goes on the run. This strikes Shepard as odd, and the reporter has a hunch that Grant isn't running away from the law, but rather towards an alibi that will prove his innocence.
Boy, is Redford pining for his youth here. The film's two main characters are throwbacks to two iconic Redford characters.
LaBeouf's Shepard is an investigative journalist for a newspaper looking to break a big story a la Woodward in All the President's Men. The trouble here is that the character simply doesn't feel right taking on that task. At first I wondered if trouble is reconciling a small paper vs. national paper doing the job, but that's not it. I then wondered if it was the notion of the dying print media leading the charge instead of the massive online media, but that's not it either. I think the problem is the character, and by extension, LaBeouf.
Shepard is a reporter of questionable ethics who will do what it takes to get his story. But there is never any real threat of consequences for his own actions. There is one scene where Agent Cornelius (Terrence Howard, Hustle and Flow) threatens Shepard and suggests the reporter might be involved in the case, but nothing is ever made of it again. Shepard is not risking his job to do what's right, he's just trying to cut corners. LaBeouf plays him as so goal-driven that in his quest to be unlikeable, he winds up being boring and unbelievable. His threats feel less like "give me what I want right now or else," and more like "give me what I want right now so we can be done with this already." It negates any chance for chemistry with any character, be it an old flame or a prisoner.
The other iconic (at least for me) character from Redford's past that this film reminds me of is Martin Bishop from Sneakers. In that, Redford plays a radical anti-government guy who was involved in some shady dealings, avoided getting caught by authorities, and lived his life under an assumed name. He was jeopardized only when circumstances beyond his control flushed him out. This is identical to the Jim Grant (aka Nick Sloan) character here. The difference between the two characters is all about believability. There was never a moment in Sneakers when I didn't believe Redford as Bishop. Here, though, the disbelief is immediate.
Part of it is due to Redford's wooden acting, but another big hang-up for me is the fact that Redford is 76 and his daughter is 11 (speaking of pining for his youth). I get that these parent/child age differences exist, but if, in real life, I saw a 76-year-old man tout that his daughter was 11, the credulity would be just as strained, believe me. That makes the girl in the film feel like nothing more than a prop—a living, breathing MacGuffin.
The Company You Keep has strengths, though, thanks to its wonderful supporting cast, but I wouldn't call the film an ensemble piece. Despite the long list of players, the bulk of the supporting characters appear independent of each other or in smaller groups. And when your bench is deep enough that your weakest links are Howard and his FBI subordinate, played by Anna Kendrick (Pitch Perfect), you have really good bench.
The standouts are Sarandon and fellow Underground colleague Richard Jenkins (Step Brothers). Neither appears much in the film, but when they do, they outshine their onscreen partners (Jenkins steals his scene from Redford, and Sarandon dusts LaBeouf in an interrogation room meeting). I only wish that Sarandon and Julie Christie (Doctor Zhivago), who stiffly plays Redford's ex-flame and is key to the film's woefully contrived ending, had switched roles.
Also in great form are Stanley Tucci (The Hunger Games) as LeBeouf's editor, Cooper as Redford's brother, and Stephen Root (O Brother, Where Art Thou?) as another Underground alum. Nick Nolte (48 Hrs.), Brendan Gleeson (Gangs of New York), and youngster Brit Marling (Arbitrage) round out the players nicely.
The 2.40:1/1080p HD transfer does a great job showcasing the beauty of the film's exteriors, which feature lush fall foliage and serene water scenes. Because of the cat-and-mouse aspects of this film, the busier scenes are served well by the 5.1 Lossless Audio. I'm surprised the extras are so sparse, given that the root of the subject matter—actions taken by the Weather Underground—is based in fact.
There are four featurettes on the Blu-ray. One blends a combination of history and story. One is a standard collection of actors offering their own insight into the characters and filming experiences, with the greatest focus on LaBeouf. The third is a mercifully brief red carpet reel. The fourth (WITH SPOILERS) is an edited press conference from the New York premiere. My highlight: the two times Redford compares his character to Jean Valjean of Les Miserables fame.
Even though The Company You Keep comes up short in trying to recapture the magic of both All the President's Men and Sneakers, the star wattage of the supporting cast shows the kind of juice actor/director/producer Robert Redford still has. Any less of a cast would not have been able to save this film.
Not guilty, but not for lack of trying.
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