For how many decades of your life do you have to be the person you were in your twenties? Small-town lawyer Jim Grant (Robert Redford) wonders that when he hears the news that Susan Solarz (Susan Sarandon), a long-ago member of the Weather Underground who lived incognito for decades as a housewife and mother, has been arrested and charged with murder for her radical activities 40 years ago. For Jim, the question is not academic. Under his real name, Nick Sloan, he had been one of Solarz’s comrades in the bombings of government buildings at exactly that period when political idealism soured into potentially lethal criminality.
The Company You Keep is Redford’s ninth film as a director and one of his most involving. With a welcome mixture of passion and grit, the movie dramatizes the lingering conundrums of young people in the time of the Vietnam morass. Many went to war, others to Canada, some into the relative safety of the National Guard or graduate school. A few, infuriated by the Kent State slaughter and exasperated by the limits of nonviolent resistance, took up arms against what they saw as the atrocities of the Johnson and Nixon administrations. When the Feds came after them, they went into hiding, fugitives in their own country, for years or forever. As Sloan says, “I’ve been Jim Grant longer than I’ve been me.”
(READ: a 1976 cover story on the Weather Underground by subscribing to TIME)
With the Solarz arrest, and the resourceful sleuthing of a young reporter (Shia LaBeouf), Grant is exposed as Sloan. To clear his name of a murder he did not commit, he must go underground again and travel from New York State to the Midwest trying to contact his old renegades. He can count on their solidarity; as Solarz says proudly, “We never betrayed each other, not once, and I’m not gonna start now.” But he needs one ally, Mimi Lurie (Julie Christie), to acknowledge publicly that Jim was not involved in the shooting of a guard; and Mimi, who now blithely runs drugs in the waters outside California, is the most intransigent of the lot. As she says of her incendiary past, “It wasn’t a dream. It was a possibility we believed we could make a reality.”
The aging remnants of the Weather Underground are played by Redford, Christie, Sarandon, Sam Elliott, Richard Jenkins and Nick Nolte, and they bring the movement a wintry luster. These six actors, whose median age is 70, have been in movies for an average of 42 years — since the glory, gory days of the antiwar militants — which makes this film The Expendables of non-action pictures, and a paean to glamour in the twilight years. Redford and Christie, whose movie careers began in 1962, still exude the glow of independent icons; their confrontation toward the end of the film is a kind of summit meeting of liberal celebrity.
In screenwriter Lem Dobbs’ adaptation of Neil Gordon’s 2006 novel, Nick, Susan, Mimi and the rest could be the members of some long-disbanded pop group. Though they remain defined by their youthful exploits, they wear their collective past differently — as a war medal or a war wound. Jed Lewis (Jenkins), a classic nonviolent radical, still harbors a philosophical grudge toward those who thought bombing was a way to liberate America. Susan, asked if she would do it all again, replies, “If I didn’t have kids or old parents that I love — yeah.” It is a kid, Nick’s 11-year-old daughter Isabel (Jacqueline Evancho), who forces his hand. Now that she knows that her father is a fugitive from justice, he wants to prove to her that he was truly an honorable man.
He must be, because he is played by Redford, who in almost every film has portrayed the ethical center of common sense. Nick doesn’t renounce his antiwar activism, but sees it as a sign of youthful exuberance and excess. “I didn’t get tired” of the movement, he says; “I grew up.” As a director no less than an actor, Redford has sought to understand and explain the sometimes perplexing actions of ordinary people. His last film, The Conspirator in 2010, was also inspired by one of American history’s dark chapters: the trial of Mary Surratt, accused of harboring John Wilkes Booth before and after he shot President Lincoln. Both The Conspirator and The Company You Keep deal with figures suspected of terrorism on U.S. soil; both look for psychological ambiguities within a First Amendment sympathy for the rights of those whose ideals may have led them to do wrong.
(READ: TIME’s Q&A with Robert Redford on The Conspirator)
The Company You Keep is streaked with melancholy: a disappointment that the second American Revolution never came, and a sadness at giving up the fulfilling, above-ground lives that Nick and the others might have pursued. As Mimi says, “I’ve walked out on six lives… not including my own.” Only at the end does the film tilt the delicate balance of remembrance and regret toward implausible optimism. Nonetheless, this is a pulsating drama of a man who goes on an intricate, often interior journey to outrun his past.