The past is a puzzle that resurfaces in bits and pieces for Robert Redford in "The Company You Keep."
The political potboiler's producer, director and star still leans left, but in telling this fable about 1970s radicals grown older and wiser, Redford's gotten nostalgic.
The movie marks Redford's first time back in front of the camera since 2007's "Lions for Lambs," his preachy take on the government's handling of the war in Afghanistan. No doubt the character of former radical Jim Grant, a role that calls for an equal share of heart, quiet heroics and politics, influenced his decision to act again.
The director put his leading man in good company. Susan Sarandon, Julie Christie, Richard Jenkins, Nick Nolte, Stephen Root, Stanley Tucci and Sam Elliott all deliver nice moments, most of them playing former activists. A new generation of talent balances and broadens the film, including "Another Earth's" breakout star Brit Marling and "Up in the Air's" Oscar-nominated Anna Kendrick.
But it is Shia LaBeouf who is the film's standout. LaBeouf's dogged reporter, Ben Shepard, uncovers the secrets that put Grant on the run and is equally problematic for the FBI. He is continually one step ahead of the team led by a frustrated Cornelius (Terrence Howard).
Shepard's relentless push for the truth becomes the spine of the film, and in it there are reminders of a younger Redford playing his own crusading journalist with Dustin Hoffman in 1976's "All the President's Men." LaBeouf's performance goes a long way in showing that the actor doesn't need Transformers to carry a film.
It also seems time for him to step outside the shadow of a legend — Redford here, Michael Douglas in the "Wall Street" sequel, Harrison Ford in the latest "Indiana Jones."
The movie opens 30 years after the extremes of the 1970s when a handful of former Weather Underground members find themselves on the run again from their anti-Vietnam protesting past. It is their crises of conscience as much as an FBI manhunt that drives the action, though those second thoughts have a way of slowing things down.
"The Company You Keep" is a shrewder, more satisfying piece of filmmaking than we've seen from Redford in a while, though not quite in the league with his best behind-the-camera work — "Quiz Show," "A River Runs Through It" and 1980's "Ordinary People," his Oscar-winning directing debut. Writer Lem Dobbs has given the filmmaker a lean and agile script, which keeps the pace brisk and significantly pares the polemics in adapting the Neil Gordon novel for the screen.
The event that put Jim Grant and three others on the FBI most-wanted list was a Michigan bank robbery in which a guard was killed. Much like L.A.'s own real-life version triggered by the 1999 arrest of former Symbionese Liberation Army member Sara Jane Olson, "Company" begins with the capture of Sharon Solarz (Sarandon). The mastermind of the robbery, she has spent the intervening years living a quiet life and raising a family.
As photos of Solarz — then and now — overtake the TV news cycle and splash across front pages, Grant finds himself pulled into the fray. Since the '70s, he's been living in Albany, N.Y., under an assumed identity, paying his dues as a public interest attorney and devoted single father. When he turns down the Solarz case, local Albany Sun Times beat reporter Shepard doesn't understand why. Shepard won't stop digging, and soon Grant is on the move.
Structurally, the film plays like individual vignettes as one central figure after another is forced to confront those troubled times. No one is keen to do so, starting with Grant's brother Daniel Sloan (Chris Cooper). But Grant has to go underground, and he wants his 11-year-old daughter, Isabel (nicely played by "America's Got Talent" singing prodigy Jackie Evancho), in safe hands while he sorts out this mess.
While news footage helps set the context with shots of Vietnam, Kent State and the fictional robbery, Grant's encounters become a way to reflect on and rehash what "they" did — both the government and the Weather Underground.
Given the actors involved, it makes for a series of showy moments: Sarandon brings a weary patience to a handcuffed Solarz as she explains why she wanted to turn herself in. Nolte as Donal, an aging radical, waxes poetic about the old days while he makes sure his lumber business stays profitable. Jenkins wears cynicism as comfortably as a tweed jacket as college professor Jed Lewis.
All roads lead to Michigan, where the bank robbery took place, and to the final fugitive, Mimi Lurie. Christie gives Mimi the kind of counterculture steel of an unrepentant radical that works well against the impossible request Grant is making of her. There is a real poignancy to the scenes between Christie and Redford playing former firebrands and lovers.
Though Redford is still a magnetic presence on screen, at 76 the actor is simply unable to credibly pass as a fiftysomething guy, and one footrace through the forest feels scary for the wrong reasons. In the film, his character's intrinsic understanding of the many ways in which time changes all of us begins guiding his decisions. If only Grant had shared that puzzle piece of insight with the director, it might have made "The Company You Keep" a better film.