You know how pesky reporters can be, right? Always poking around in other people's business, all in the service of selling a few newspapers. "The Company You Keep" is all about that process, and the lives that become unraveled due to one reporter's dogged diligence. That reporter, Ben Shepard (Shia LaBeouf), is all about uncovering "the truth," no matter who gets taken down in the process. That the process itself is to the film's overall detriment is an unfortunate outcome, though there are some interesting twists and turns in the telling of the tale.
The action gets underway when a member of the Weather Underground is captured in upstate New York, after 30 years on the lam. The name of the new inmate is Sharon Solarz (Susan Sarandon), and it seems as if she was trying to turn herself in, though no one is quite sure why, especially given her history of successful evasion. The local newspaper where she's taken into custody, The Albany Sun-Times, is scooped by the national news, much to the chagrin of the editor (Stanley Tucci). He demands Shepard get on the case, and pronto. Through some convoluted script machinations, Shepard finds himself at the office of Jim Grant (Robert Redford), a respected local lawyer. Shepard is curious as to why Grant isn't helping Solarz, as his political sensibilities seem to come down on the side of the Weather Underground. Why, indeed?
All this transpires within the first 25 minutes or so, and from then on, the movie shifts to a full-fledged chase film. Shepard is tasked with tracking down Grant's real story, and the audience is tasked with figuring out who the hell Jim Grant actually is. You don't get many clues either way, always an issue in a thriller/mystery, but the action is brisk and significant enough to feel vital. Persistent logic issues aside, "The Company You Keep" at least manages to maintain an audience's interest for a solid 80 percent of the film. The ending is a slight flop, which keeps the film from an overall recommendation, and in the stark light of day, it seems fairly evident not everything adds up.
The major problem of "The Company You Keep" is the moral fiber of the piece. Making a film about an issue as dicey as the Weather Underground is, on the face of it, courageous, but "The Company You Keep" routinely avoids all judgments. Was the Weather Underground a necessary political instrument that actually saved lives by acting out in a violent manner? Or were they the same as terrorists the whole world round, their original intent severely corrupted by their deeds? Instead of getting into that, the film is much more comfortable throwing its hands in the air and saying, "Quick, look over there!" Main characters go on long diatribes about how the government is massively corrupt and unfair, only the message is delivered by folks who don't seem entirely credible. Crackerjack reporter Ben Shepard feels like he's an important member of the fourth estate, right until main characters tell him he's not worth a damn. As an audience, we're forced to admit that the guy we're rooting for could be a sap. This is not a recommended method.
Generally, in storytelling, the infusion of complexity is a sum positive, but here it's used to muddy the waters, not to build a powerful narrative. This is a story that doesn't take sides, even as all the main characters are portrayed as actively taking sides. An enigma this, the shell of a good story with the heart of good actors, completely undone by a frantic fumbling of all the interesting themes.
To be fair, solving an issue as dynamic as non-violent vs. violent protest or the proper role of new media in a democracy shouldn't rest on the broad shoulders of "The Company You Keep." Still, by taking both sides throughout and without a clear point, the movie risks saying nothing at all.