Film Review: ‘The Company You Keep’ ponders ends vs. means

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‘The Company You Keep’
Director: Robert Redford
Stars: Robert Redford, Shia LaBeouf
Rating: R
3 (out of 5) Globes

The radical Vietnam-era organization Weather Underground has long been a favorite weapon of the right with which to bludgeon the left. Liberals, for the record, tend to be conflicted on the subject. The 2002 documentary “The Weather Underground” explores the circumstances that birthed the group, as well as the regret and remorse felt (by some of them, anyway) over their less defensible deeds. Robert Redford’s “The Company You Keep,” meanwhile, is downright tortured over acts the film only supports up to a point.

Redford himself plays a small-town lawyer who harbors a secret: He was once a Weatherman, and is in fact on the FBI’s Most Wanted list for a decades-old bank robbery that turned fatal. That his character was actually innocent (of this charge, at least) is a touch evasive, but the film allows plenty of other voices into the fold. When the feds start whimsically rounding up the now AARP-aged radicals, incredibly spry septuagenarian Redford goes on the lam, semi-improbably risking detection so that he can do little but talk to former associates, ranging from the disapproving (Richard Jenkins’ professor) to the remorseless (Julie Christie, with Yank accent).

Redford’s “Lions for Lambs” also teemed with chatting — endless, hilariously didactic chatting — but “Company” avoids that one’s mistakes. Where “Lambs” simply sought to prove an already-arrived-at point (the Iraq War was bad,) “Company” trods upon less sure ground, genuinely searching for a way to bridge noble intentions with, shall we say, questionable deeds. Redford’s character is made overly likable — he’s even fitted with a very young daughter whom he adores —but that we’re not made fully hip to his past makes him a refreshingly wobbly moral center to a film that also gives one character (violent activist-turned-suburban mom Susan Sarandon) a major scene to explain how her pride overshadows her guilt.

The chase picture plot that breaks up the discussions is, not surprisingly, sleepy and silly, especially with Shia LaBeouf trying very hard to play an intrepid small town reporter out to get a national scoop. “Lambs” featured Redford actually giving a stern talking-to to America’s youth (embodied by Andrew Garfield), so it’s better that the younger actors here — also including Brit Marling and Anna Kendrick, both more or less wasted — are used more as pawns in the plot, not condescending representatives of the country’s young. The nobility of “Company” is always greater than its artistry, but occasionally the two come close.

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