Never mind that in real life, Weather Underground activists did not murder anyone in their anti-war radicalism of the early 1970s. In Robert Redford's The Company You Keep, they did.
As the film tells it, during a Weather Underground bank robbery, a security guard was killed, and the young revolutionaries escaped. The fugitives, still on the FBI's short list of most wanted decades later, have melted into the suburbs under assumed identities. Sharon Solarz (a shining Susan Sarandon) plans to turn herself in when the FBI gets the jump on her. This is the spark that ignites the thriller's slow fuse, which smolders thanks to the acting but is ultimately smothered by sap.
Shia LaBeouf plays Ben Shepard, an arrogant sophomore reporter whose main goal in life is to break a major story, ethically or not. He gets his chance when he finds that a local lawyer is actually Nick Sloan (Redford), one of the wanted fugitives. When Ben's story breaks, Nick slips away. Thrills are in short supply as Ben tracks Nick across the country, piecing together clues from a public library. Nick, meanwhile, calls on favors from old activist buddies. After Donal (Nick Nolte) offers him a room for the night, Nick recognizes someone he thought was dead. "We all died," Nolte growls. "Some of us came back."
Other than LaBeouf and a few bit parts, the cast could be the red-carpet parade at the 1986 Oscars. Redford, Sarandon and Nolte are joined by Julie Christie, Sam Elliott and Richard Jenkins (a dour professor of Marxism who barks objections to Nick's violent tactics). Youth be damned: Dispassionate Redford aside, the top-notch cast delivers.
But Hollywood's moralizing foot stomps out any flames, ensuring our young reporter can reflect on some gee-whiz life lessons. The only question left to the audience is whether the action is at all realistic. If these left-wing activists cared so much about Vietnam three decades ago, shouldn't there be an offhand remark about the Middle East? Wouldn't the FBI, overeager to track down the fugitives, use drones or tap a phone without a warrant? Instead, it's all abruptly resolved, glossing over any discussion of morality, journalism or activism.
If we're to judge based solely on the company kept in this film, The Company You Keep wins, thanks especially to Sarandon, Nolte and Jenkins. As the film reminds us, "Terrorists justify terrorism," but impressive performances do not justify a snoozy plot.
Critic's Grade: C+
SEE IT: The Company You Keep is rated R. It opens Friday at Fox Tower.