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Like Redford, The Company You Keep Harkens to an Earlier Era

  • Jeffrey Huston Crosswalk.com Contributing Writer
  • 2013 4 Apr
  • COMMENTS
Like Redford, <i>The Company You Keep</i> Harkens to an Earlier Era

DVD Release Date: August 13, 2013
Theatrical Release Date: April 5, 2013 limited; expands April 26
Rating: R (for strong language)
Genre: Drama
Run Time: 125 min
Director: Robert Redford
Cast: Robert Redford, Shia LaBeouf, Chris Cooper, Terrence Howard, Stanley Tucci, Susan Sarandon, Julie Christie, Brendan Gleeson, Brit Marling, Anna Kendrick, Richard Jenkins, Nick Nolte, Jackie Evancho

On the heels of the tragic Boston Marathon bombing, it’d seem you couldn’t find a more relevant film than one about domestic terrorism. But here’s the rub: it depends on how that film deals with its subject as to whether the timing is poor or perfect. With The Company You Keep, it’s a little bit of both.

Before wading into those muddy waters, it should be said upfront that this is a well-done, commendably muted throwback to 1970s political thrillers. It boasts a great cast, has a solid script, and is tautly directed by Robert Redford (Lions for Lambs), who also stars. Think of it as the cinematic equivalent of a tribute band, playing the hits from the last great era of American movies and acquitting itself rather well by comparison.

But for a movie with ambitions of being thought-provoking, its biases lay a bit too obviously with the old liberal militants. The Company You Keep is an effective and entertaining movie but not one that's going to be changing anyone's views – and in this current climate, may even rub some people the wrong way despite its conscious efforts toward topical sensitivity.

Wrestling with such a volatile issue as domestic terrorism eventually requires a look at motive, and that’s what Redford does in this tale about fictionalized former members of the very real Vietnam-era extremist group The Weather Underground. That notorious band of anti-war protestors went beyond traditional tactics and actually bombed government buildings – including the U.S. Capitol and the Pentagon – along with some banks. Their view was that if the U.S. was going to do that to Southeast Asia, then someone should do it back to them.

Fast-forward to present day and several of those former Weathermen (and women) remain on the FBI’s Most Wanted list. They have evaded capture for nearly forty years by assuming new identities and blending into new locales. After one member is tracked and captured in New York, Ben Shepherd (Shia LaBeouf, Lawless) – a resourceful and opportunistic young newspaper reporter from Albany – tracks down clues to another: Jim Grant (Redford), a single-father practicing law (much of it pro bono, i.e. still an idealist). As Shepherd follows and publishes his leads, it forces Grant to go on the run in a possible attempt to clear his name while the FBI pursues.

There’s a classic cloak-and-dagger aspect to all of this, reminiscent of some of Redford’s most iconic movies. Even if it’s been awhile since he’s worked in this genre, it’s clearly familiar territory; Redford eases back into it – both in front and behind the camera – like a hand to a well-worn glove. He keeps the complex plot dynamics at the fore along with each character’s own internal conflicts, and Lem Dobbs's (Haywire) script structures it all in a way that builds tension by holding back information before well-timed reveals (save one minor twist you see coming about a half-hour before its confirmed; a minor quibble).

Despite those strengths, Redford can’t help but show his ideological hand. While there are no good guys and bad guys here, there are clearly protagonists (the Weatherman fugitives) and antagonists (the press, the FBI). As much as Redford may want (and even think he’s achieving) philosophical relativity, he makes more of an effort to have his protagonists be understood and his antagonists to serve as foils who could stand to be more intellectually curious.

At one point early on a captured fugitive says, "We made mistakes. But we were right." That’s the film’s view in a nutshell. Given how it’s addressed to a young overzealous reporter who wasn’t even born until a decade after that tumultuous time further defines The Company You Keep as sort of a Sympathy For Radicals.

This tone favors the ex-Weathermen throughout, contrasting the protagonists' thoughtful and conflicted gravitas with eager knee-jerk reactions by the antagonists. When an FBI agent counters by saying "Terrorists justify terrorism. Don't get confused," it’s clear the movie isn’t offering this up so much as a moment of moral clarity but rather naïve simplicity. That this all serves as more of an indictment on the media than the militants makes its perspective feel awkwardly skewed, even a little blind.

The movie skirts the water's edge of being preachy without ever falling in, and consequently it's not unduly burdened by its biases. For those who don’t share its predispositions (myself included), The Company You Keep remains a compelling and worthwhile movie-going experience. Regardless of your views, this is a good bet for those seeking out well-crafted genre cinema that involves smart people having smart conversations about relevant topics with passionate counterpoints. It’s a gripping yarn, grippingly told, that gives you stuff to think about (even if it can’t resist the urge of suggesting what conclusions you should draw).

CAUTIONS:

  • Drugs/Alcohol Content: A few alcoholic beverages are consumed; no drunkenness.
  • Language/Profanity: Strong language throughout. The F-word and S-word are commonly used, occasionally pervasive. The A-word is used a handful of times, as are other more mild profanities. Six instances of the Lord’s name in vain.
  • Sexual Content/Nudity: None
  • Violence/Other: Gunplay during a robbery; someone is shot and killed (seen through a security monitor).

Publication date: April 26, 2013