If you saw the last two films Robert Redford directed -- 2007's "Lions for Lambs" and 2010's "The Conspirator" -- you likely weren't surprised to hear that his latest, "The Company You Keep," centers on political radicals. But you might be surprised to discover that one of Hollywood's best-known liberals has made a film about 1960s anti-war militants that doesn't attempt to whitewash their many crimes.

The film opens with a Vermont housewife watching her husband and children leave the house. But it feels like there's something different about this morning farewell -- and there is. Soon after, when she stops at a gas station to top off the tank, Sharon Solarz is surrounded by the FBI, arrested and taken into custody. The New England housewife had been a member of the Weather Underground in the 1960s, when she and some associates robbed a bank and killed a security guard. They've all been fugitives for more than 30 years.

Solarz is played by Susan Sarandon, but don't expect to see a lot of the talented actress onscreen. "The Company You Keep" has quite a company, in fact: Great older actors and actresses surprise us with their appearances -- That's Chris Cooper! And there's Richard Jenkins! -- as one fugitive makes his way around the country, finally searching out the past he tried unsuccessfully to leave behind.

On screen
'The Company You Keep'
» Rating: 3 out of 4 stars
» Starring: Robert Redford, Shia LaBeouf, Julie Christie
» Director: Robert Redford
» Rated: R for language
» Running time: 125 minutes

That fugitive is Jim Grant, played by the director. The widowed father of an 11-year-old girl (classical singing prodigy Jackie Evancho, in her film debut), Jim has been successfully practicing as an attorney in Albany, N.Y. When Solarz is arrested near Albany, a local newspaper reporter starts digging around and discovers Jim is wanted for the same crimes. As Ben (Shia LaBeouf) tries to make a name for himself with the story he stumbled upon, the FBI add the reporter to the long list of people they're keeping under surveillance. But he starts to think both he and the FBI have it wrong in thinking of Jim as a criminal. Why would the man go back to the places of his past if he were trying to escape them? Unless there was something in the past that could change his future.

"The Company You Keep" focuses on a group of hippies -- some reconstructed, some not. But it's very up-to-the-minute in its details. "This is a national news story. I think you should go home and tweet about it," FBI agent Diana (Anna Kendrick) dismissively tells her ex-boyfriend, Ben, saying he should leave the reporting to the New York Times. "I don't tweet," he responds. "Oh, that's right. You don't email either," she retorts, and in a few lines, we have their backstory.

Those youngsters carry off their roles just fine, but it's the veterans who shine. Redford is elegant, as always, and so is Julie Christie as a fellow fugitive and his former lover. "I counted last night," she muses at one point. "I walked out on six lives. Six sets of friends. Six lovers." She's the idealist who remains an idealist, no matter the cost. Whereas Jed Lewis (Richard Jenkins) has renounced the old means -- violence -- but not their ends. Of course one of these radicals had to end up a professor.

The screenplay by Lem Dobbs ("The Limey"), based on the novel by Neil Gordon, has a number of good lines. The best say a lot more than their characters intend. "Dissent can be dicey. You can't get to my age without some regrets," Sharon tells Ben in a jailhouse interview. Ben isn't given any lines that good -- his character is a hotshot reporter who thinks he's "making history." His mistake is similar to that of the radicals, though on a lesser scale: He believes the normal moral rules don't apply to him because of his mission. But as Redford's serious film reminds us, there's no point to saving the world and losing your soul -- or abandoning the souls of those for whom you're responsible.