“Truth”: All the president’s documents undo Robert Redford’s Dan Rather

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“Truth” opens Friday at Sundance and Marcus Palace Cinemas. R, 2:05, two and a half stars out of four.

James Vanderbilt is a screenwriter who revels in ambiguity. He wrote one of the best films of the ’00s, David Fincher’s “Zodiac,” in which the notorious San Francisco serial killer was maybe-not-quite revealed, but certainly not caught, at the end of the film.

There’s a similar uncertainty as to what’s really going on in the perhaps ironically titled “Truth,” Vanderbilt’s dramatization of the 2004 scandal at CBS over possibly forged documents suggesting that President George W. Bush had used family connections to get out of going to Vietnam. The evidence remains inconclusive either way as to their veracity, but longtime CBS anchor Dan Rather resigned, and his producer Mary Mapes was fired.

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“All Is Lost”: To take arms against a sea of troubles

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“All is Lost” opens Friday at Sundance Cinemas. PG-13, 1:46, four stars out of four.

Robert Redford says very few words in “All is Lost,” and two of them are “I’m sorry,” repeated three times in a single message delivered in voiceover at the beginning of the film.

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Can a movie have too many famous actors in it?

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When Brendan Gleeson shows up about two-thirds of the way through Robert Redford’s “The Company You Keep,” I actually burst out laughing at his dour Irish mug. Not that there’s anything funny about Gleeson’s performance in a small role. It’s just that the film had been such a cavalcade of veteran actors that it was like “Well, who else can we fit into this movie?”

I mean, in addition to Redford, “Company” has Stanley Tucci, Chris Cooper, Julie Christie, Sam Elliott, Susan Sarandon, Nick Nolte, Stephen Root and Terrence Howard, not to mention Shia LaBeouf, Brit Marling, Anna Kendrick and “American Idol” fave Jackie Evancho representing the younger generations. I called it the “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” of political thrillers in my review, and joked on my Facebook page that any actor you can think of over 50 has a decent shot of being in the movie. (My friends helpfully pointed out that Abe Vigoda and Emmanuelle Riva were not among the cast.)

Now, it would seem self-evident that a filmmaker would want the best cast possible for his movie, and Redford obviously has the clout to get who he wants for his movie. (His last movie, “The Conspirator,” had a similarly heavyweight cast.) Recognizable actors not only attract audiences in theaters, but in the pre-production phase can attract financial backers and studio distributors.

But there is such a thing as a tipping point, and I think “Company” is one of those films that tips over. It’s just so loaded with familiar faces in every part large and small that it keeps throwing you out of the film, making you think “Hey, there’s so-and-so” rather than sinking into the story and identifiying the characters. I think that’s why Gleeson’s presence made me laugh. The other problem is having a great actor in a small part and not giving them anything to do with it — Gleeson largely exists to further the plot along, and while Sarandon and Christie each get a couple of nice scenes, Nolte and Elliott are largely wasted.

An “all-star” cast has been a hallmark of Hollywood movie advertising back to the Golden Age. Think of something like the 1962 D-Day drama “The Longest Day,” which had Richard Burton, Henry Fonda and John Wayne among a cast too numerous to mention. Or “How the West Was Won,” which had Fonda again, plus Jimmy Stewart, Gregory Peck and many more. Or all those Irwin Allen disaster movies of the ’70s, like “The Towering Inferno,” with Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, Fred Astaire and O.J. Simpson, among others. Their names looked great together on a poster. But can anybody say any of them did their best work in those films?

Woody Allen is another one who seems to like top-heavy casts. When a film of his connects, I don’t notice it as much; “Midnight in Paris” has a pretty strong cast that includes Owen Wilson, Marion Cotillard, Kathy Bates and Rachel McAdams, but each one of them seems perfectly cast in their role. Meanwhile, last year’s ungainly “To Rome with Love” got kind of exhausting with its big cast, including Alec Baldwin, Diane Keaton, Jesse Eisenberg and Woody himself, I think largely because most of them didn’t have that much interesting to do besides look good in Italian cafes.

One movie that I think did the big cast right was “Margin Call.” I remember seeing the premiere at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival and being agog at seeing Tucci, Jeremy Irons, Kevin Spacey, Dylan Baker, Paul Bettany and Demi Moore on one stage. But that film made it work because it broke the story down into a lot of two- and three-character scenes, giving everybody a turn to make an impression. It was a very egalitarian way to handle it.

Also successful, but in a completely different way, are the new “Ocean’s 11” movies. They handle their large casts because there’s a clear hierarchy to the cast, with George Clooney, Brad Pitt and Matt Damon at the top and the other eight (or nine, or 10) members of the team kind of orbiting around them, appearing and then disappearing. Carl Reiner is great in his role, but if he got as much screen time as Clooney it’d throw the balance of the film off.

For a sports team, there’s nothing like a deep bench. But the same doesn’t always hold true for movies — sometimes a Dream Team isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

“The Company You Keep”: Redford is a radical on the run

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“The Company You Keep” opens Friday at Eastgate and Sundance Cinemas. R, 2:05, 2.5 stars out of 4.

What’s the one thing I never thought I’d see missing from a political thriller directed by Robert Redford? Politics.

“The Company You Keep” is a film about former ’60s antiwar radicals on the run decades later, but it takes no stand – has no interest, really – on the rightness or wrongness of what they actually did. Instead, it’s an intriguing thriller with a heavyweight cast from top to bottom that only intermittently realizes its potential.

Redford stars as John Grant, a do-gooder lawyer in upstate New York. When a member of the Weather Underground (Susan Sarandon) is captured nearby after 30 years on the run and charged with the murder of a bank guard, Grant declines to take her case. Which strikes ambitious local newspaper reporter Ben Shepard (Shia LaBeouf) as a little odd, since it’s the sort of bleeding-heart case that Grant would usually jump at.

So he greases some palms in local government, pulls at some threads, and discovers that Grant himself is a former member of the Underground, Nick Sloan. Grant/Sloan goes on the run, reconnecting with a web of old comrades (Nick Nolte, Richard Jenkins, and Julie Christie among them) as he crosses the country (including a quick stop in Milwaukee).

Meanwhile, Shepard digs into the Michigan bank case and starts raising doubts about Sloan’s guilt. The film criss-crosses between both characters before they finally reunite in remote mountain cabin, the FBI closing in.

I’m not quite sure, in the broadest strokes, what Redford or screenwriter Lem Dobbs (“The Limey,” “Haywire”) were going for here. They don’t want to re-litigate the politics of the Vietnam era, for sure. But the film only makes a passing attempt to be a tense “Fugitive”-like innocent-man-on-the-run style thriller. (And Terence Howard, who plays the FBI agent in charge of the manhunt, is no Tommy Lee Jones.)

The overarching theme seems to be that of reflection, of old firebrands reckoning with what they did as young radicals, and if it was worth it. “We’re a story told to children now,” Sloan says at one point. “But I’m glad somebody’s still telling it.”

If the energy and purpose of the overall film flags at times, there’s still enough to hold your interest in “The Company You Keep.” That’s largely due to the almost ridiculously high-level cast, including not only the names mentioned above but Stanley Tucci, Sam Elliott, Anna Kendrick and Chris Cooper. By the time Brendan Gleeson and Brit Marling appear late in the film as the retired detective in charge of the bank robbery case, and his daughter, I actually laughed out loud. It’s like the “It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” of political thrillers.

Redford seems more concerned with keeping all the characters and all the different threads of plot from getting tangled, and I think he keeps a steady hand on the till. He’s so concerned with story that he’s less successful with giving his cast enough room to breathe, but there are moments that shine. Sarandon has a dynamite interrogation-room scene that rings with both exhaustion and conviction, and Redford and Christie spar effectively in a scene late in the film over the legacy of the Weather Underground.

But the breakout star, shockingly for me, was LaBeouf, an actor I’ve never particularly cared for. His Ben Shepard is one of the best portrayals of a journalist I’ve ever seen in a film, a mix of drive and pride and ambition, often confusing personal ego for the public interest. It’s not a terribly likable portrait but it rings true, one of those last, flawed crusaders in a slowly dying print newsroom.