Robert Redford’s new film, ‘The Company You Keep,’ reconciles his double life as romantic lead and serious director

For 40 of his 76 years, Robert Redford has lived a double life. In front of the camera, he was America’s heartthrob.

Behind the camera, he’s critical of those who abuse American freedoms.

 

In 1972, two Washington Post journalists reported that Republican operatives had broken into the Democratic National Committee offices. Carl Bernstein’s and Robert Woodward’s articles brought down a president. Even before they wrote a book about it, Redford optioned their story. Woodward credits Redford for helping them shape it as not a story about Watergate, but one about reporters chasing the story.

You may have heard of “All the President’s Men.” In the 1976 film, produced by Redford’s company, Redford portrays Woodward to Dustin Hoffman’s Bernstein. It received four Oscars and is one of the defining movies of the ’70s.

You may have not heard of “The Company You Keep.” Redford stars in and directs this new film that considers the legacy of violent protest and not incidentally, reflects on Redford’s personal legacy.

Also in 1972, the Weather Underground, leftwing terrorists protesting the Vietnam War, bombed a ladies’ room in the Pentagon. In “The Company You Keep,” Redford plays a onetime member of the Weather Underground, now a single father, living incognito as a civil rights attorney. When his long-ago confederate Susan Sarandon is arrested 30 years after the bombing, he fears he’ll be outed. Especially because an investigative reporter, played by Shia LaBeouf, is nosing around, asking why Redford declines to represent her.

Company’s all-star cast, which includes Sarandon, Julie Christie, and Nick Nolte as the one-time radicals, amounts to a full-employment act for stars of a certain age and ideology. Shia LaBeouf, Anna Kendrick and Brit Marling are thrown in so that the film appeals not only to those who came of age in the ’70s, but also to their children.

Because both “The Compnay You Keep” and “All the President’s Men” are about new-school journalists investigating old-school politicos, it’s easy to see these intelligent thrillers as bookends to Redford’s singular career.

“Company” is both about a political legacy and also Redford’s personal legacy and Redford is what’s best about the film. I won’t argue that it’s as urgent a film as President’s Men. But I like how both gain momentum by showing the difference between terrorism — which intimidates — and activism — which uplifts.

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