History lesson time: The Weather Underground, also known as the Weathermen, was a group of radical anti-war activists who organized in 1969 as a splinter faction of Students for a Democratic Society. Operational until the mid-'70s, they abandoned the dominant counter-cultural commitment to non-violence and conducted a series of bombings of government buildings and banks. After the Vietnam War ended, individual members continued with radical Left activities, including a 1981 Brinks truck robbery that killed a security guard and two police officers. They were homegrown terrorists before the time of Timothy McVeigh and all of today's exploders of abortion clinics. Ready for director Robert Redford's weak-tea apologia for these guys?
Well, ready or not, it's here, based on Neil Gordon's 2003 novel of the same name. It's a fictional account of Weather-people (Redford, Susan Sarandon, Julie Christie, Nick Nolte, Sam Elliott) in hiding for decades after a 1980 bank robbery that resulted in two deaths. Sarandon's character is arrested in the opening moments and a chain-reaction manhunt begins with Redford, living quietly in New York with his 11-year-old daughter, suddenly on the run, attempting to clear his own name and dig up the ones who actually pulled the triggers. Aggressive young reporter Shia LaBeouf -- wearing "I'm smart!" glasses and doing his best in what seems to have been written as a Millennial-shredding parody of Redford's portrayal of Bob Woodward in 1975's All the President's Men -- follows Redford, determined to get the truth.
Too bad nobody was equally determined to make the film compelling, as we're treated to a straightforward man-on-the-lam movie with a long running time, zero suspense and a meaningless third-act reveal that adds nothing to anyone's understanding of who these characters are and why they did what they did. How much regret do they feel? Do they still consider their actions just? How might they attempt to explain murders committed for the cause of not-murdering? Is it okay to leave your family and friends behind just to cover your tracks and save your own ass? And why is nobody running all that fast to save themselves in the first place? Sure, you're old and all, but the FBI is after you. Get the lead out.
There's a jailhouse monologue from Sarandon as she attempts to school an unimpressed LaBeouf by invoking the idea that apathy was considered the equivalent of violence. There are also a few sentences from Julie Christie (who, along with Redford, appears to be the recipient of cosmetic procedures unbecoming a hardcore leftist radical) that gloss over all the people in her life she's abandoned in order to remain "free." But otherwise we get nothing in the way of thought-provoking self-examination. Redford decided we needed a non-thrilling political thriller instead, where the worst of what '60s radicalism had to offer is given a platform to chirp, "Gee, we thought we were doing the right thing," instead of what he could have delivered: a dark, serious-minded, political Big Chill. In that alternate version nobody has time to dance to Motown hits because they're all too busy realizing they've left nothing but ruin in their wake.