The Company You Keep is an average thriller. It’s not entirely exhilarating, but passes the time despite being a little too long at just over two hours. However, forget the thriller aspect for a second, the weirdest bit is the journalism side of the story and its clear hatred for new media. To be fair, I share director Robert Redford‘s disgust for the hit baiting slam pieces that come from today’s media more focused on clicks than integrity and proper sourcing. But, as we watch a young journalist do everything he can to check his sources and get the story straight, the way the narrative plays out it all begins to feel extraordinarily contradictory.
Written by Lem Dobbs (The Limey, Dark City), The Company You Keep is an adaptation of Neil Gordon’s novel centering on a young journalist’s exploration into the identity of a former member of the Weather Underground. The events are triggered following the arrest of Sharon Solarz (Susan Sarandon), a one-time member of the Weather Underground responsible for a variety of violent acts of domestic terrorism while protesting the Vietnam War. With the arrest happening in the backyard of a struggling local Albany newspaper, the editor (Stanley Tucci) sends the ambitious young journalist Ben Shepard (Shia LaBeouf) out to investigate how the FBI even knew where Solarz would be in the first place.
Ben’s investigation quickly leads him to Jim Grant (Redford), a single father working as a lawyer with a private practice. Connecting the dots, he eventually learns Grant was also once a member of the Underground. He outs him in an article, sending him on the run with the FBI hot on his tail, but Ben has an inkling Grant isn’t running out of guilt, but for reasons he can’t yet quite explain.
The main focus here is Ben’s method of investigation. Yes, he uses Google search a couple times, but other than that he’s a pen, paper and library archives kind of guy, yet he’s chastised time and again over new media’s lack of sources, told such things as, “Maybe you should go tweet that” and “Oh, so you guys actually do get sources now.”
Ben isn’t the only one in the film’s line of sight as much as I got the impression most of America’s youth is the target as a desk clerk is made to look ignorant while tapping away on his cell phone before Ben interrupts him in search of some documents. Meanwhile, Ben is building a story, checking his sources and travels from Albany to Ann Arbor on his own dime. Hardly a journalist with the lack of integrity found in the new media slackers this script has set its sights on.
To tell the story, Redford has scattered a boatload of talent throughout. Including those already mentioned, appearances are made by Brendan Gleeson, Richard Jenkins, Nick Nolte, Chris Cooper, Julie Christie, Brit Marling, Terrence Howard, Sam Elliott and Anna Kendrick. No one can say Redford can’t assemble a cast, but then again he got together solid performers for both Lions for Lambs and The Conspirator and neither one of those exactly turned out a winner.
From the performances to the filmmaking, nothing stands out as much as it all maintains a level of status quo. It’s a competent film, good for a rental, but not much else. It’s a poor man’s All the President’s Men and the thriller aspect wears thin pretty quick and the mystery behind the story holds very little intrigue from the start.
Walking away, it felt the reason Redford even chose to direct the film had less to do with the story and more to do with a chance to point out the awful state of journalism today. It felt like every scene Shia LaBeouf was involved in at least one shot would be fired in the general direction of new media reporting and the idea of defamation over accuracy. Like I said, I understand the sentiment, but if that’s the film Redford wanted to make he should have thought about directing a different story.