Robert Redford’s Runaway Activist Thrills Venice Festival

In the early 1970s, a U.S. group known as the Weather Underground detonated small bombs at the Pentagon, the State Department, and the Capitol to protest the Vietnam War. They gave advance warning to avoid casualties.

Four decades later, actor-director Robert Redford brings a fictionalized version of their story to the big screen, starring himself, Shia LaBeouf and a seasoned cast including Julie Christie, Nick Nolte and Susan Sarandon. “The Company You Keep” -- based on the Neil Gordon novel -- had its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival.

“I was sympathetic to the cause,” Redford said at the overcrowded Venice news conference yesterday, wearing a black T- shirt under his white linen jacket. “The war was wrong: They had every right to refuse to go.”

Redford said he watched the group self-destruct back in the day, as its members became increasingly “pleased with themselves.” Yet he shared their anti-war agenda.

The movie starts with news footage of Weather Underground attacks. It then cuts to a Vermont housewife who’s seeing off her husband and two teenage children after breakfast one day.

Driving to the gas station next, Sharon Solarz is arrested in a police swoop: She was part of a Weather Underground team whose robbery of a Michigan bank resulted in a guard’s death.

Another member of that team was Redford’s character. Recently widowed and now named Jim Grant, he’s a public-interest lawyer and a doting father to 11-year-old Isabel (the promising Jackie Evancho).

Tenacious Reporter

Enter Ben Shepard, a reporter for a struggling newspaper. He won’t let go of the story, despite warnings from his hard- nosed editor (Stanley Tucci). Tenacious Shepard does his laptop research even when he’s at the Laundromat, and wraps dollar bills around a Styrofoam coffee cup to bribe a bureaucrat for information.

Before long, Shepard reveals Grant’s true identity in a newspaper scoop. Grant is forced to leave daughter Isabel in his brother’s care and run away.

“The Company You Keep” is a good story told the old- fashioned way. There are no jittery handheld cameras, no overbearing soundtracks, no fancy voice-overs.

The movie is far less wordy and heavy-handedly political than Redford’s 2007 “Lions for Lambs.” It’s also better than two other U.S. movies that were included, unlike Redford’s, in the official Venice competition: Terrence Malick’s “To the Wonder” and Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master.”

Rebels, Legends

Casting is the film’s forte. Redford pairs the fresh-faced and gifted LaBeouf with screen legends who each play an ageing rebel. Christie is the wild, free-wheeling woman who has shunned sedate suburban life. Gruff Nolte has a heart as big as his frame.

Seated beside Redford at the Venice briefing, LaBeouf -- his hair slicked back and parted on the side -- said he watched the Watergate-busting movie “All the President’s Men” (starring Redford as Bob Woodward) to compose his character.

Given director Redford’s unambiguity about whose side he’s on, the movie can’t avoid moments of earnestness. Yet it’s solidly put together -- which is more than can be said for so many other Venice offerings this year. Rating: ***.

(Farah Nayeri writes for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)

What the Stars Mean:
*****      Exceptional
****       Excellent
***        Good
**         Average
*          Poor
(No stars) Worthless

Muse highlights include Robert Heller on rock music, Lewis Lapham on history, Zinta Lundborg’s New York weekend and Jeremy Gerard on Broadway.

To contact the writer on the story: Farah Nayeri in Venice at farahn@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.

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