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Actor/director Robert Redford's mighty standing in Hollywood must be a good one for him to have attracted so much star power and talent for his latest directorial effort that is at best, distinctly average. Marketed as a clever political thriller, as well as a huge ensemble piece that promises to be quite the intricately plotted, complex and exciting piece of work, it shows a lot of promise from its opening scenes, but what we find is a gradual dip and slump in quality as it becomes clear the film doesn't have too much to say for itself. What it sets out to accomplish is not very clear throughout the film, and this lack of purpose and drive is what makes everything feel so stale - something that even the big names in the credits cannot quite rescue.
After years of hiding out, a notorious wanted fugitive is arrested by the FBI. As part of the anti-Vietnam War militant named "Weather Underground", Sharon Solarz (Susan Sarandon) was wanted for a bank robbery that resulted in a murder a few decades ago. Her arrest leads to the sharp, ambitious young reporter Ben Shepard (Shia LaBeouf) to do his very own digging around the terrorist group Solarz was involved in. His investigation leads to Jim Grant (Robert Redford), a lawyer hiding out in Albany under an alias. Grant too has a lot to hide, and this recent turn of events of an ex-"colleague" is not doing him any favours. Plus this hot-shot reporter looking for a career-defining story, asking questions, visiting his work is also something he doesn't welcome into his life.
Leaving his young daughter (Jackie Evancho) with his brother (Chris Cooper) who is less than thrilled to be in contact with him, Grant decides to go on the run, although Ben is determined to get a story out of this due to his pushy editor's (Stanley Tucci) insistence. What exactly is Grant after? To clear his name from past crimes he wasn't involved in, maintain his innocence, and the only person who can do this is the elusive Mimi Lurie (Julie Christie) with whom he shared something special back in the day when they were both active in the militant group. This little reunion between the two is delayed for far too long as we see far too much of Ben's investigative journalism. There isn't anything wrong with showing us the methods, the keen reporter doing whatever he can to find a story he can print, but it's often what he discovers that's of little interest. There are children involved, adoption, paternity issues, but these don't contribute to the overall narrative. It only slows down and distracts us from what's truly important.
Despite being surrounded by tons and tons of information that end up being inconsequential in the long run, LaBeouf always has that convincing level of energy and passion in the lead role - his character is relentlessly searching something that's been buried for a good reason, but his inquisitive, curious nature, which is probably why he's so suited to be a reporter in the first place, comfortably comes out in this talented actor's performance. He's young, cheeky, and a kind of a brat, similar to roles he's had in the past and played well, and in a cast full of so many award-winning actors, he doesn't fall short at all.
Once Jim and Mimi do end up in the same room, it leads to a heartfelt, intelligent discussion about their values, beliefs and ideals - what they believed so passionately in the 70s don't quite hold the same weight in the current context. The trouble is, the two of them aren't on the same page. Jim seems to have moved on, and is comfortable with the way his life has turned out, leaving the past behind. But Mimi, even at her age, still questions the government, has her own political values, and doesn't give a damn about the law she doesn't agree with. Heck, when we first see Mimi, we see a 70-something year-old granny smuggling what's quite obviously an illegal amount of marijuana into the States. She smoothly avoids the attention of coastguards and goes about her merry way. Another theme that crops up is whether there is any regret, remorse or guilt about past actions. Whatever they do or don't feel can't excuse their actions, the characters know this too, and the heated exchange between the two, although brief, is a deep, insightful one: a worthy wrap-up of preceding events.
Aside from those already mentioned, other big names in the cast appearing include Brendan Gleeson (a retired cop with some secrets that could make Ben Shepard's story more interesting), Terrence Howard (an FBI agent taking lead on the "Weather Underground" crackdown), Anna Kendrick (an old flame of Ben who gives him some information), Nick Nolte (an old friend of Jim who he relies on for help), Richard Jenkins (, Sam Elliott (a man who knows where Mimi is) and Brit Marling (a love interest for Ben that pops up quite suddenly out of the blue but she too becomes a piece of the puzzle). Do they all serve a purpose to further the story or are they merely a distraction? They end up as a little bit of both, with understated performances all-round contributing to this greatly restrained piece. A lot of the roles are incredibly brief, and would have been perfectly adequate for less famous faces to fill them - but it would appear the prospect of working with a legend such as Redford is a highly sought-after experience for any actor.
It's not as informative or powerful as Redford's previous politically driven picture, the highly underrated and underseen "Lions for Lambs", but the appeal here is still huge, starting with the stars, its opening, and a neat finish that successfully plays on the chemistry between Redford and Christie. So then it's a shame the middle filling isn't quite as gripping as it should have been. It could have been shorter, and the many famous names should have been put to better use.