04/02/2013 10:35 am ET Updated Jun 02, 2013

Robert Redford, Journalism Hero, Sours On The Profession In 'The Company You Keep'

robert redford journalism

Robert Redford and Shia LaBeouf, the stars of 'The Company You Keep.' (Redford also directed.)

Journalists like to think we have a special relationship with Robert Redford.

He's kind of our guy.

It all started with "All the President's Men." Redford played Bob Woodward, a legend in our field who, in the period the film covers, performed some of the most heroic acts of investigative reporting in American history.

If you've seen Woodward on the Sunday shows, you know that he's not exactly a heartthrob. Few reporters are. But as embodied by gorgeous, golden-haired Robert Redford, Woodward was the Greek God of Breaking News.

To bring down a creep like Nixon and look good doing it? Who wouldn't want that life? It's safe to say that one movie launched 100,000 journalism careers.

So I'm sure I wasn't the only person in this field to take note when Redford decided to direct a film about journalism set in the present day -- with himself as a public-interest lawyer trying to evade the inquiries of an aggressive young reporter played by Shia LaBeouf.

Listen, I like Shia LaBeouf. I even profiled him for Vanity Fair back in 2007. I think he's one of the more compelling actors of his generation, but he's no Robert Redford.

If anything, he's a Dustin Hoffman -- a fast-talking operator who slides under the radar. If Redford gets the girl, it's because she's finally ready to put away foolish things and embrace her natural destiny. If Shia gets her, it's because he wore down her defenses with one of his charming put-ons.

Which, come to think of it, probably makes Shia a far more accurate representative of this business.

In "The Company You Keep," which premiered last night at the Museum of Modern Art, LaBeouf's Ben Sherman is a hell of a reporter. Starting with nothing but the phone number of an old college flame with a job at the FBI, he pieces together a story that had flummoxed the Bureau for 30 years.

Much of what he does feels realistic enough, for better or worse. He reads a lot of documents and watches a lot of YouTube videos. He doorstops people and pretends to know things he doesn't to get people to talk. He floats half-baked theories in his articles as a way of smoking out sources. He rants and raves at his editor (played by a gloriously world-weary Stanley Tucci) when his request to chase a stray lead to the Midwest is denied. (Sadly, this part feels the most realistic.)

And then there are the Hollywood bits. Because it's a movie, Sherman can't settle for determining what has happened. He has to figure out what his subject is going to do next -- and why.

And this is where Redford betrays his true feelings about journalists. And where we start to feel like Daddy doesn't love us anymore.

It starts with his character's offhand comments. Newspapers still report the news? he asks. Reporters still check sources? Ha. Ouch.

But then -- and this is a mild spoiler, so be warned -- comes a moment when his character challenges Sherman to examine his own motivations. Why is he chasing this story? What are his motivations? Will he like himself in the morning if he writes this article?

The implicit answer to that last question is: No.

Which is a long, long, long way from the message of All the President's Men, where two reporters with the skills and guts to tell the truth were held up as conquering heroes.

Mr. Redford, what did we do to you? Is there some way we can win you back?

Because if you don't believe in us anymore, this profession just got a whole lot less sexy.

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