Redford’s wheels-within-wheels thriller covers a time in American protest history that terrorist hysteria has let lie fallow. In the latter stages of the Vietnam War, the Weather Underground radical movement adopted but never fully followed through with a campaign of systematic violence directed against what it saw as an incipient police state. Here, Redford is Jim Grant, an upstanding upstate New York lawyer and widower well into late middle age. He has a fairly unspectacular practice and 11-year-old daughter he adores. But when the FBI arrests a local woman, Susan Solarz (Susan Sarandon), for her role in a long-ago Weatherman bank heist in Michigan it soon becomes clear Grant isn’t Grant but Solarz comrade-in-arms Nik Sloane. All this comes front-and-center thanks to a sarcastic Watergate-styled local reporter named Ben Shepard (Shia Lebeouf) who’s less interested in moral shadings than reassembling the puzzle. So is the FBI, but with less understanding.
Thus begins a film-long cat-and-mouse game intended less to highlight Sloane’s sudden flight than explain (and occasionally rationalize) the motives of the movement. When Solarz tells Shepherd that yes, she’d do the heist again (“…we made mistakes, but we were right…”), the Redford’s message-movie side comes clear.
But there’s far more to the Grant-Sloane story than meets the eye, with Redford determined to poke and prod at media responsibility, radical (and police) hypocrisy, and, most important, honoring children with the truth — “the fundamental duty.” But that sentimental aside sinks the traction. The deeper the family and romantic tangents, the more platitudinous the approach, with one-time love interest and diehard radical Julie Christie dragged into the worst of it.
Still, once upon a time the U.S. had its own radical fringe, and, as Neil Young once wrote: “It’s better to burn out, than is to rust.”