x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Robert Redford gives even-handed direction in The Company You Keep

There is little in the way of tension in this mystery thriller, and the story veers into a torpid family drama.

Robert Redford and Jackie Evancho in The Company You Keep. Doane Gregory / AP
Robert Redford and Jackie Evancho in The Company You Keep. Doane Gregory / AP

The Company You Keep

Director: Robert Redford

Starring: Robert Redford, Shia LaBeouf and Susan Sarandon


In a world where the word "terrorist" is a catch-all phrase used to allow governments to run roughshod over human rights laws and international conventions, the director Robert Redford reminds audiences that there is such a thing as just cause - or, depending on one's point of view, misplaced idealism.

His adaptation of Neil Gordon's novel focuses on The Weather Underground, a group that formed in Michigan in the 1960s and believed that peaceful protest was not an effective tool in the battle for Civil Rights and to denounce the Vietnam War. The Weathermen would issue evacuation warnings before bombing buildings, splitting public opinion as to their methods and goals.

Cleverly, Redford leaves arguments over the merits of the organisation well alone and looks at how events unfold when, after more than 30 years in hiding, the former Weatherman activist Sharon Solarz (Susan Sarandon) is arrested for her involvement in a bank robbery that resulted in the death of a security guard.

When a young journalist (Shia LaBeouf, in his best performance yet) starts investigating the case, he discovers a link between the respected local lawyer Jim Grant (Redford) and the organisation. As Grant goes on the run, Redford must have exhausted his address book calling up Hollywood's finest character actors to make appearances, including Julie Christie, Nick Nolte, Richard Jenkins, Chris Cooper, Terrence Howard, Stanley Tucci, Brendan Gleeson and Sam Elliot.

Redford's big trick is not to take sides; from the FBI, to the journalists and the former Weathermen, he manages to portray them all even-handedly. As a result, there is little in the way of tension - a glaring omission in a mystery thriller - and almost as the best means to avoid too much controversy, the story veers into a torpid family drama.

Redford talks to James Mottram about The Company You Keep

This is a rare time that you’ve directed yourself in a movie. Is that something you enjoy?

No. It’s not a comfortable thing. I’ll do it but I’m not really comfortable. I do it because I like to act and I think the part is something I’d like to play. But in terms of the technical part of it, no. It’s tough to separate. I cannot go to a monitor and look at myself. I’ll faint dead away from disappointment and disillusion.

The film deals with the gap between the generations. Do you feel you can learn from younger people?

Yes. You have to give the controls to young people; they’re going to shape the future. The danger for my generation is that you grow old and tired. And young people coming in have new, fresh ideas. It’s important to connect with them.

What drew you to the story of The Company You Keep?

The story of how things change but how things don’t change, and the contrast between that time and today, involving journalism. How journalism has changed with the times.

Did the story shift a lot as the film developed?

The material that I had to begin with was very different, and it was shaped over and over again, over time. And I think the thing that was driving me was the similarity of the story to Les Misérables. That’s what was at the heart of what interested me. What is the cost of 19 years [in jail] for a loaf of bread? You escape from prison, take on a false identity, and yet there is Inspector Javert there – the ego of that inspector who will not give up that pursuit. I think that had a lot to do with shaping this.

Do you ever wish you were younger again?

No, because you can’t turn it back, you can’t go there. I can’t turn it back. I’m sure there are things I would envy and things I would not envy. But you can’t turn back time.

Your character spends a lot of time on the run. Do you feel like that every time you step out into the public? And do you ever go out in disguise?

Yeah! I’ve tried that! I’ve gone underground more than you know! I’ve had many disguises. I enjoy them! I had a disguise once when I was skiing once in Sun Valley. It was really a great disguise!  But I think as I get older it gets easier. I’m not a public person very much. I stayed away from public appearances and stuff. I’ve got an old-fashioned belief that you owe the public your work, you don’t owe them your private life. So you have that right to keep that private – though that is difficult.

You recently took your Sundance Film Festival to London. How was that experience?

It was the first time Sundance went out of its birthplace in Utah. I was very sceptical about it, very nervous – particularly about being in that space [London’s 02 venue] which was monstrous. I said, ‘Let’s just do it for four days. Let’s see what happens.’ And it turned out to be OK…it went better than I thought.

Could you ever see yourself leaving America and moving to, say, Europe? Living in Europe?

I love Europe. I love the antiquity of Europe. I love the fact that there’s age that America doesn’t have no matter how hard it tries. It can’t have it. You come here to feel the antiquity of generations and time. It’s fabulous. I love that. But I love my country; I love my country so much, I think that’s why I criticise it.

What’s different about the Hollywood of today and when you started?

The roles are so different. When I was a young actor, there wasn’t the fantasy that there is now. High technology has created these films – like Transformers. That couldn’t have been made in the 1960s. You were forced to do more films that were about people. Once technology gave us the ability to have special effects, it changed things. But if that was available to me as a kid, I would’ve jumped at it! The only thing available to me as a kid was Frankenstein!


The Company You Keep opens in UAE cinemas Thursday