Robert Redford can certainly muster an impressive list of acting talent, but this film is a reminder that there is more to a good film than that.
Like many others at TIFF this year, particularly baby boomers like myself, I was keen to see how Redford would go about dealing with an especially controversial aspect of recent American history. The premise here is compelling: members of the Weather Underground who are accused of murder after what appears to have been a bungled bank robbery have gone to ground, have built lives with varying degrees of success and respectability, only to have it all reopened years later when one of them decides to turn herself in. An earnest young reporter at a small newspaper is given (or seizes) the opportunity to dig into the story and finds out more than he bargained for.
There are several problems, though. For one, the film pulls its main punch, and telegraphs that move so early on that the natural tension is never allowed to build. I know that Redford is an old-fashioned movie star, and the prospect of his having actually been guilty is perhaps just not in the cards, but knowing this in the first few minutes makes the rest of the story rather unsuspenseful. Instead of wondering whether this (frankly rather dull) single father really did what he was accused of, we are left with watching him try to exonerate himself in a cross-country odyssey that is implausible and often tedious.
To be sure, there are some fine performances. The scene between Susan Sarandon and Shia LaBeouf in prison, as she tries, with only limited success, to explain herself to a sceptical and ambitious young journalist from such a different era, is very convincing.
Redford himself, though, does not really command our attention or interest. If you're going to star in your own movie, you should be sure that you really are the best choice for the role. At the age of 76 (and yes, despite being fit and well put together, he really does look his age), Redford is at least ten years older than his role would demand. And he has a 12 year old daughter!
Moreover, he fails to infuse the role with any real passion. Now, raw emotion has never been Redford's strong suit. He is just too cool for that. But here is a role that really calls out for something other than his typical calculated, rational, "nice guy" approach.
As a director, Redford is more successful. For movie buffs, it's fun to watch the train scene, for example, (how many directors have train scenes anymore?) which pays homage to some of the great train scenes from older suspense films like North by Northwest.
With this subject matter, The Company You Keep could have been an edgy and provocative political thriller, with a resonance that makes connections between the student terrorism of the 1970's and the burning economic and social issues of today. The fact is that many of the same underlying problems that led to the formation of the Weathermen - foreign military involvement, economic disparities, reactionary social policies - remain with us. Instead, however, the film never really brings itself to confront these issues except in the most oblique and politically correct fashion. It is an opportunity squandered.