THE COMPANY YOU KEEP directed by Robert Redford (USA, 2012)

It’s a measure of how unpolitical most American blockbusters are that this movie practically counts as a radical drama. It begins with archive footage of the Weather Underground Organization (WUO) and this left-wing group’s vain attempts to counter injustice, greed and warmongering in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The Weathermen’s opposition to US  military involvement in Vietnam was such a central part of their protest that it all but fizzled out when the war ended.

By choosing to direct an adaptation of Neil Gordon’s novel, Robert Redford is able to give work to fellow ageing actors like Julie Christie, Nick Nolte and Susan Sarandon. All these play ex-WUO activists. Redford is Nick Sloan, a widower and single dad hiding under a new identity as lawyer Jim Grant.

A younger upstart is Shia LaBeouf who plays Ben Shepherd, an increasingly irritating local reporter on the trail of a massive scoop who quickly blows Sloan’s cover. Using old school journalist methods like trailing through dusty archives, door-stepping and bribery he effortlessly joins the dots from A to B to C in a few days which begs the question as to why it took the FBI three decades before catching up with these fugitives. The incentive was quite high since the charge against them is the murder of a security officer during a botched bank robbery.

Then again, you only have to see the headless chicken methods of these lame law enforcers to understand how the wrinkly Weathermen remained at liberty for so long. Sloan is able to outwit detection by donning the masterful ‘disguise’ of wearing a baseball cap and when his precise location is found by a phone tap the squad arrive on the scene with sirens blaring – they might just as well have texted WE R COMING 2 GET U. RUN AWAY NOW!

Singing sensation Jackie Evancho as Sloan’s 11-year-old daughter serves to raise doubts that such a soft-hearted parent could be a hard-nosed killer. It is left to Julie Christie as Mimi, his ex-partner in crime and former lover, to fulfill the chief role as unrepentant activist – her speeches, and those of Sarandon, encourage strong parallels between the Weathermen’s efforts to overthrow state control and today’s Occupy movement but no such link is ever made explicitly.

Instead, it’s a low-key thriller with such an old-fashioned feel that new technology serves as an intrusion. It’s a world in which characters still get updates on ongoing investigations from breaking news on TV rather than Twitter feeds. The relatively slow pace is perhaps a reflection of the mature cast although Redford shows he’s still fit enough to go jogging and to attempt to outrun younger FBI agents.

By concentrating on character studies and the human dimensions to the drama, the political content is downplayed though never entirely sidelined. Another safety first case of ‘fence-sitting rules ok’.

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