What's Wrong With This Picture?

Robert Redford and the American façade.

Although he plays a college professor in his latest film, Robert Redford was, by his own admission, never much of a student, consistently more interested in what was going on outside the classroom window than inside. But there's one moment from Redford's academic past that burns brightly in his memory. The year was 1950, and Redford was a junior-high student in Van Nuys, California, suffering through one of those standardized achievement tests that are the bane of every kid's existence. Suddenly, one particular section of the exam grabbed his attention. "There was this picture, and you had to figure out what was wrong with it," Redford recalls. "The picture seemed to be totally perfect — a woman was standing on a porch with a broom, and a mailman who had just delivered the mail was talking to her. And I got so excited — I was going to find out what was wrong there!" Then Redford found the answer: The woman was wearing only one sock.

In the more than 50 years since that eureka moment, Robert Redford has stayed on the lookout for the subtle fissures in seemingly flawless façades, whether in the American government's veil of inviolability (All the President's Men), broadcast television's carefully stage-managed reality (Quiz Show) or the stiff upper lips of a tragedy-stricken suburban family (Ordinary People). Now, Redford is once again traversing the chasm between the American dream and the American reality in a new film, Lions for Lambs, that meets the war on terror and a grab bag of other sociopolitical issues head-on, making for one of the year's most provocative and polarizing moviegoing experiences.

Directed and produced by Redford, who also stars, Lions weaves an intricate tapestry of a failed America, beginning on an unnamed Southern California college campus, where a bright but slackerish student (newcomer Andrew Garfield) settles in for a conference with the political-science prof (Redford) who sees unrealized potential in the boy. At the same moment, in the corridors of Beltway power, a rising Republican senator (Tom Cruise) offers a seasoned reporter (Meryl Streep) an exclusive scoop about his new plan for winning the war in Afghanistan (and, by proxy, Iraq). Meanwhile, half a world away, where the senator's strategy went into effect "10 minutes ago," two U.S. soldiers find themselves stranded in enemy territory after their helicopter is shot down by Afghan insurgents. Providing a further point of connection, the soldiers are former students of the professor, whose advocacy of action over apathy led them to enlist in the first place.

Simply put, Lions for Lambs is a movie about people talking in a room — or, rather, four people talking in two rooms, hashing out political and personal ideologies while, on a mountaintop in Afghanistan, the lives of two men hang in the balance. Of course, what's really at stake (in case you missed the point, which is pretty hard to do) is the future of our nation. It's the sort of theatrical premise that wouldn't have seemed out of place on one of the socially relevant 1960s television anthology series in which Redford did some of his first screen acting. But if Lions for Lambs, which flows from the pen of 34-year-old screenwriter Matthew Michael Carnahan, is wordy and unsubtle in the extreme, it's also that rare Hollywood movie that possesses the strength of its own convictions and pursues them with commitment and intellectual rigor far removed from the reductive faux humanism of Rendition and In the Valley of Elah.

"In the current climate, audiences are accustomed to, and seem to crave, hard, visceral action films where you go inside the pores of the wound and everything's moving at 150 miles per hour," Redford says, offering a fairly succinct description of the other Carnahan-scripted political drama in release, The Kingdom.

It's a rainy October morning in Boston, where the filmmaker is winding up a college promotional tour that has included stops at Berkeley and Harvard. When he arrives (late, as is his custom) for our interview, there's no mistaking the wiry figure in sweater, jeans and brown loafers being ushered through the lobby of the Ritz-Carlton hotel, no matter that the famous flaxen hair is mostly hidden beneath a Red Sox cap, the blazing blue eyes concealed behind aviator shades. For all his interest in the misleading surfaces of things, Redford himself is a failure at camouflage — an asset if you want to be one of the most recognizable movie stars on the planet and a liability if you want to be taken seriously as a film artist. More on that a bit later.

For now, though, our conversation centers on other matters. At first, Redford says, he wondered if Lions for Lambs might work better as a play. "Then I thought: Wait a minute. How many times are you going to get a script that's really able to touch on some of the issues that concern you? The fact that they're talking heads in a room is something you should embrace and figure out if you can make it dynamic enough. I started to see the film in a new way, and I got excited about it. I said, 'I think I'll take a chance on this.'"

Soon, Redford had two powerful allies willing to ante up with him — his Out of Africa co-star Streep and Cruise, who saw Lions not just as a potential starring vehicle for himself but as the perfect flagship production for the newly resurrected United Artists studio, which Cruise and producing partner Paula Wagner assumed control of last year. "Just the idea that Tom was interested in it was the first thing that intrigued me," says Redford, noting that the senator character was originally written as both older and African-American, something of a Colin Powell surrogate. "Then I started to think about the qualities that Tom exhibited on film, which were intensity, a kind of all-American energy and an appealing youthfulness. And I began to see him in the skin of this guy who's fundamentally going to be running for office all the time."

A canny move, the casting of golden boy Cruise makes the character seem like a souped-up, neocon version of the senatorial aspirant Redford himself played in 1972's dark political satire The Candidate, a man whose message grows shallower as his sideburns grow shorter, his salt-of-the-earth idealism giving way to glib, TV-friendly sound bites. But whereas Redford's Bill McKay is left to ponder "What do we do now?" as throngs of supporters rush into his dressing room upon his victory, Cruise's Jasper Irving harbors no such self-doubt. He merely barrels forward, never looking back — the personification of a political culture in which mistakes are admitted only in what political commentator William Schneider has termed the "past exonerative" tense.

"He presents something to think about," Redford says, "because of the way he doesn't answer questions. He appears to but doesn't, and he stays on message maddeningly."

While Streep's veteran newshound grills Irving about a "new" strategy for Afghanistan that sounds suspiciously like Creighton Abrams' sure-fire plan for turning the tide in Vietnam, the silver-tongued politician repeatedly assures her that there's no point in sitting around analyzing the past — if we do, the whole house of cards could come tumbling down. "And he's got a point," Redford allows, "but what you should be thinking about is that he created the fact that there even is a point like that to be made. It's that kind of thinking that got us into a war we shouldn't have been in — that got us in prematurely, with poor planning and for all the wrong reasons. And then we were lied to on top of that. We've seen that one before."

Several times, in fact. "When I think about the arc of my lifetime," Redford says, running his fingers through his hair, the hat having migrated to a nearby table in his hotel suite, "I realize that I've lived through historical periods where certain events occurred that carried the same pattern: McCarthy, Watergate, Iran-Contra, and now this. When you stop to think about those moments, you realize there's a certain repetition. It's the same mindset every time, the same sensibility that inhabits the characters: paranoia, obsession with power, ego, insecurity, winning at any cost."

Back when Redford and director Michael Ritchie made The Candidate together, the producer-star envisioned the film as the second installment in a trilogy that would take winning — specifically, "the pyrrhic side of winning" — as its subject. The first installment, Ritchie's 1969 Downhill Racer, cast Redford as the headstrong Olympic skier Dave Chappellet, who learns the hard way that there's always someone younger, faster and even more ambitious ready to steal your spotlight. The third was intended to focus on the world of business, but Redford never found a suitable script. Now, with Lions for Lambs, he has effectively finished what he started 38 years ago, by making a film in which everything — higher learning, journalism, politics — is reduced to the level of a transaction, a devil's bargain.

Redford likes that the movie raises more questions than it answers, leaves its three storylines dangling in irresolution, and doesn't let any of its characters off the hook, whether it's the pacifist professor who has inadvertently led his students into a combat zone, or the reporter forced to choose between abetting the government propaganda machine and watching her career go down in flames. None of that seems likely to curb accusations that Lions for Lambs is a piece of Democratic agitprop, an anti-war PSA in art-movie clothing. (Reviewing the film after its London Film Festival premiere last month, Variety opined that Lions "uses a lot of words to say nothing new.")

"I'm sure it will be perceived as everything from pretentious to sanctimonious," Redford says with an air of resignation. "What may get missed is the fact that, when I got involved with the film and decided to do it, the first thing I thought was, we can't be riding on the issues that are discussed in this film because those issues will be yesterday's news by the time the film comes out. How can you beat the scandals that are coming out of Washington daily? You can't top that with a black comedy!"

Though you wouldn't guess it to hear him today, the Charles Robert Redford who turned up on the streets of Paris at age 18 with vague notions of becoming an artist was not nearly so politically engaged. A prankster and carouser, he'd dropped out of the University of Colorado and sailed to Europe on a student visa. In Paris, he took up residence in a kind of student commune, where his flatmates challenged the naïve, handsome American in a way he'd never experienced before. It was, according to Redford, "the beginning of my real education.

"They'd ask me how I felt about certain things, and I didn't know," Redford recalls. "It was during the Suez crisis, when America deserted the French and it was a disaster, and I didn't know what they were talking about. I felt so put down that I decided to really focus on the politics of my country, but it was done from another place. It was done from reading French, Italian and German newspapers and talking to students and hearing different opinions. I cobbled together a point of view that was from other points of view." By the time he landed back in America two years later, "I was filled with experiences of real-life situations and the myths of this country. I guess that's where it all started."

Redford went to New York, enrolled at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, and by 1960 was appearing in bit parts on Broadway and on TV in the likes of Maverick, Perry Mason, Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Playhouse 90. His movie break came in the form of a supporting role in the low-budget 1962 Korean War drama War Hunt. (His co-stars included Sydney Pollack, who would go on to direct Redford in six films.) By 1967, when he reprised his stage role for the film version of Neil Simon's Barefoot in the Park, he was a bankable star. Two years later, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid didn't just catapult Redford into the Hollywood firmament — in one of those marvelous tricks of the flickering light, the role imparted some of its romantic, rebel-outlaw mythos (and a lifelong nickname) to the actor himself.

The Redford who appears in a lavish 1970 Life magazine spread titled "Robert Redford Riding High," literally riding high on the back of a horse against a dramatic Utah mountainscape, is scarcely recognizable as the suburban SoCal youth who, barely a decade earlier, wasn't quite sure what he wanted to do with his life. Photographed skiing, snowmobiling, and relaxing with his wife, Lola, and their two children at the home and ski complex that would become known as the Sundance Resort, he is an Olympian vision — a movie-star deity — with an accompanying canonization by film critic Richard Schickel (a friend of Redford's) to seal the deal.

"There are times when it is simply intolerable to have him breezing in and out of your life ... passing through from someplace he makes sound marvelous to someplace he will make sound wonderful," writes Schickel in a particularly perceptive take on the feelings of infatuation and resentment that great movie stars can inspire. "These moments of envious bedazzlement generally occur when you are in a temporarily weakened condition — when all the children have been on penicillin for a week and aren't getting better, when your accountant has just called to tell you your tax bill was a little stiffer than he had originally estimated. In such dreary contexts, Redford stands there with his trim, tan, healthy exterior wrapped around a nervous system entirely innocent of booze, cigarettes and Miltowns, and something inside you harrumphs disapprovingly. Damn fool ought to watch his step."

But though it would be naïve to suggest that Redford was ungrateful for his genetic gifts or never took advantage of them, "sex symbol" is a label he has worn uneasily at best. Accusations that he was a pretty boy and a dramatic lightweight dogged him from his earliest days in the theater. ("He's just another California blond — throw a stick at Malibu, you'll hit six of them," went the famous grumblings of one studio executive when Redford was first proposed for the Sundance Kid role.) And long after he established himself in Hollywood, Redford continued to feel the superficial tugging at the substantive. (It is hardly accidental that, of the seven films he has directed to date, Lions for Lambs is only the second, following 1998's The Horse Whisperer, in which Redford's face appears onscreen.)

"Look, I started in the theater in New York because I was interested in the craft of performing," Redford tells me when I ask him if having one of the most famous mugs on the planet has been something of a mixed blessing, his voice registering a faint note of annoyance at what is clearly a sensitive subject. "I played character parts, villains, rapists, all kinds of different roles. When I went into film and the romantic thing struck, suddenly it was all about that, and then I was perceived as only that. If you're considered a good-looking person, you get hammered on your substance. I could see that coming, and it depressed me, and then it did come, and then it became like a hook in me that I couldn't get rid of."

Until, that is, Redford entered middle age. The talk remained focused on his looks, only now it was about how he was supposedly losing them. ("Weathered and remote" is how The New York Times described Redford's physical appearance in its review of 1990's Havana, released when the actor was 54.) "As you begin to age, then suddenly it's a liability that you're aging," Redford says. "What was I supposed to do? Die in a car crash and stay young forever?"

Well before that, though, Redford searched out roles like those in The Candidate and Downhill Racer, parts that made cannon fodder of his supposed vanity. And he used his popularity and charisma to back a succession of politically charged, decidedly non-movie-star-ish projects that likely could have been willed into being only during the much-mythologized New Hollywood of the late 1960s and the 1970s. These included Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here (1969), the comeback film of blacklisted screenwriter Abraham Polonsky and an early indication of Redford's interest in American Indian history; the iconic frontier Western Jeremiah Johnson (1972); and, of course, All the President's Men (1976), a movie to which Redford devoted years of his life as producer and star. Even some of the overtly commercial projects to which he signed on carried unexpected sociopolitical subtext, as with the McCarthy-era witch hunts that background the glossy Barbra Streisand romance The Way We Were.

"I guess, as an artist, somewhere along the line I became a cultural critic," Redford says. "I so love this country, but I also get worried about it. I see it sliding away from itself." Not that he's convinced that any of his contributions — as actor, producer or director — have had a lick of measurable influence. "The Candidate was about how we get people elected in this country for cosmetic reasons rather than substance, and that this was something worth thinking about. Well, nothing happened. We got Jerry Brown, and then we got Dan Quayle."

Redford has considerably more damning words for the state of American journalism in the three decades since All the President's Men, chiding print and broadcast outlets alike for their decisions to focus on sports and entertainment reporting at the expense of hard news and investigative reporting. Most of all, he's troubled by the media's unblinking willingness to toe the Washington party line. That's one of the deeper and more lasting issues that Redford hopes will be discussed in the wake of Lions for Lambs, though he remains wary of the real possibility of change through cinema, particularly among college-age audiences such as those he has been speaking to on his tour.

"I think it would be unfair to classify this generation as apathetic and cynical," Redford says when I ask if Lions' underachieving student protagonist can be considered a representative figure. "I think there's a lot of that out there, and I think a lot of it, by the way, is justified, because there's no leadership to admire — there's no moral figure to follow. Kids today feel like they're too smart for all this bullshit, so they turn away from it, which creates its own issue — young people turning away from the problem rather than saying, 'Wait a minute. This is my future that's going under. I'm going to do something about it.'"

Time, though, is of the essence. As the Lions for Lambs ad line neatly surmises, "If you don't stand for something, you might fall for anything." And, like his character in the film, Redford is a firm believer that every moment spent sitting down is a wasted one. To that end, he has infused Lions with an old-fashioned but diabolically effective gimmick: The movie's action unfolds in 90 real-time minutes, each one designed to press heavier than the last upon the audience's collective conscience.

"Maybe," Redford says, "that will send the signal that, symbolically, we're running out of time here. When you stop to think about all the damage that's occurred in just six years in this country, that we could have gone from being so highly admired — particularly after 9/11, when we had the world's sympathy with us — and now look where we are. Look where our economy is. Look where our dollar is. Look at the lives that have been lost in the war we were lied to about and which still goes on. That all this could happen in six years tells you that we don't have a lot of time to get things in balance.

"Each character in this piece represents some desperation of time running out," Redford continues. "That was the whole reason for doing the film, and if it provokes thought or debate, I would be satisfied. That would be my reward."

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