In 'Lions for Lambs,' cool icon turns passionate political advocate

by Carrie Rickey

The Philadelphia Inquirer (MCT)

9 November 2007


PHILADELPHIA—Sundance fever. Happens every time Robert Redford comes to the University of Pennsylvania. Back in `98, the president and deans panted like fangirls. This time, undergrads are star-struck and stammering.

“Mr. Redford?” gulps a quavering-voice female undergrad in Zellerbach Theatre where, on a recent October evening, a capacity crowd of nearly a thousand previewed the actor-director’s “Lions for Lambs.” Afterward, they pitched softball questions.

cover art

Lions for Lambs

Director: Robert Redford
Cast: Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep, Robert Redford, Michael Peña, Derek Luke, Andrew Garfield, Peter Berg

(United Artists)
US theatrical: 9 Nov 2007 (General release)
UK theatrical: 9 Nov 2007 (General release)

Review [9.Nov.2007]

“Before all of us gathered here,” the undergrad prefaces her query to the rakish actor up on stage, “I would like to say, you’re a very sexy guy.”

“And this is a very sexy school,” says Redford, a ruggedly youthful septuagenarian, before gentling the conversation back to his film.

“We’re good at engagement outside our country, but not so good within it,” Redford says about his most political movie since “All the President’s Men,” which came out in 1976, a decade before most of these Penn students were born.

“Lions,” a triptych starring Meryl Streep as a skeptical journalist, Tom Cruise as a U.S. senator selling his new military initiative in Afghanistan, and Redford as a professor prodding a passive student toward activism, is the filmmaker’s challenge to the YouTube generation.

It indicts the media for not informing, students for not performing, elected officials for not leading, and the country for not educating its youth. All in 90 minutes.

“Get active!” the figure in jeans and cowboy boots exhorts the cheering crowd.

REDFORD ON FILM As a moviemaker, Robert Redford wears many hats. As an actor, he’s the mythic American figure. As a producer-actor, he’s the real guy trying to change the system. And as a director, he’s made films about healing broken families. Mythic Redford: “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” (1969) Charismatic outlaw Sundance robs banks with Paul Newman’s Butch and loves Katharine Ross’ Etta Place. “The Way We Were” (1973) Redford is the all-American apathetic, who is beloved by political activist Barbra Streisand. “The Natural” (1984) He’s the slugger with the lightning-struck bat. Political Redford: “The Candidate” (1972) An idealist makes compromises on the Senate campaign trail. “All the President’s Men” (1976) Reporter Bob Woodward—with fellow scribe Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman)—cracks open the Watergate break-in and helps to bring down a president. “Lions for Lambs” (2007) A professor lights a fire under an apathetic student. Family Redford: “Ordinary People” (1980) A boy’s death shatters his parents and his brother, who struggle to reassemble their lives. “Quiz Show” (1994) A professor cheats on a popular TV show, to the shame of his father. “The Horse Whisperer” (1998) After her daughter is severely injured in a riding accident, a mother consults an unorthodox healer.

From the stage, flanked by actors Michael Pena and Andrew Garfield, who play his students in the film, Redford paraphrases the words of his character, professor Stephen Malley: “It is better to try and fail than to fail to try. Political and social change is going to come from you.” The audience eats it up like idealism-infused popcorn.

“Fascinating,” murmurs Eugene Numoo, a senior from Ghana and a cinema studies major. “He made this movie for students just like us.”

Just as fascinating is how “Lions for Lambs” reconciles the decades-old Redford Paradox. In it, for perhaps the first time in his movie career, the figure Redford plays on screen is as passionate, funny and garrulous as he is off-screen.

In life this most aloof of idols, famously “the man who does not engage,” as his director-chum Sydney Pollack (“The Way We Were,” “Out of Africa”) put it, isn’t as detached as his screen persona.

Since the 1960s, when he vaulted to stardom as the Sundance Kid opposite Paul Newman’s Butch Cassidy, Redford has actively advanced an environmental agenda, founded the Sundance Institute to nurture film artists, and produced (and starred in) critiques of status quo politics such as “The Candidate” (1972) and “President’s Men.”

No matter that in one film he played a Senate candidate and in the other the journalist who helps bring down the Nixon administration. No matter that the Oscar-winning filmmaker directed “Ordinary People” and “Quiz Show,” among many films about family secrets and lies. The image of him that persists is that of the elusive cowboy freeze-framed and backlit against the sunset. Is this our Redford Paradox—or his?

“Directors muscle me to be iconic,” he says with an offhand shrug, reflecting upon why he is different, more himself, on screen in “Lions.”

It is the morning after the Penn lovefest and Redford—midway through a college tour that includes previewing “Lions” at Berkeley, the University of Chicago and Harvard—is cooling his heels in a Philadelphia hotel suite.

His glorious hair, the amber waves of grain, has faded to winter wheat. Still. Were he 51, the trim figure in the black shirt, jeans and reading glasses would look damn fine. At 71, his weathered, lived-in face bespeaks character more than age. As an adjective, “sexy” is not inaccurate. But it insufficiently captures this specimen of active mind and radiant health.

Redford has directed himself only once before, in “The Horse Whisperer,” delivering one of his patented cowboy-in-the-sunset roles. If, in “Lions for Lambs,” Redford the activist corresponds with Redford the actor for the first time, it is because, he says, “though I don’t particularly like directing myself, I do trust myself.”

And he trusts his political gut. “Lions for Lambs” feels like a summation of everything that Redford—actor, activist, entertainer, father and citizen—is thinking about his country.

“This isn’t America’s proudest moment,” he says. Streep’s character in the movie goes further, stating, “This is one of the worst times to be an American.” The national mood reminds him of the 1960s. “Then we had leaders not knowledgeable about other countries and cultures, leaders ego-driven to position us as a country of great power.

“The same condition prevails now, only worse,” Redford says. Worse, because there is no counterculture. Instead, there is what his character in “Lions” calls a “windsock” culture, of people flapping in the breeze.

Written by Matthew Michael Carnahan (also the scribe of the Middle East thriller “The Kingdom”), “Lions” is a “support the soldiers/end the war” film that frames its real-time story in three loosely connected confrontations.

In Afghanistan, two of Malley’s former students (Pena and Derek Luke), now soldiers, struggle to survive a firefight. In Washington, a hawkish senator (Cruise) sells his new war initiative to a dubious journalist (Streep). In Los Angeles, the professor lights an activist fire under one of his students (Garfield), a fratboy he disparages as “a windsock.”

“The opposite of a windsock culture would be a windmill culture,” Redford explains, hands rotoring. “I think there’s political energy out there and I’m trying to harness it.” He will not comment on the notion voiced by some at Penn that as “All the President’s Men” helped write the epitaph for the Nixon administration, so, too, could “Lions for Lambs” do that for the Bush presidency.

He also rejects the idea floated at the Zellerbach that “Lions for Lambs” was made to influence the 2008 election. More students voting would be good, he says, but electoral politics are beside the point.

“I probably won’t support a candidate, it’s too depressing. ... the national stage is too clogged and compromised,” says the actor, who contributed to John Kerry’s 2004 primary campaign. “I work for congressional candidates.”

Well, then, what IS the point?

He cites a scene in “Lions” in which his character challenges the student to reflect upon whether he has done the most with his gifts. So, does Redford think he has done the most with his?

“I’ve tried,” he says meekly, more lamb than lion. For him, success has been something to wrestle with. As he put it early in his career, success “isn’t something you embrace.”

Let the record speak. Like Clint Eastwood, for the last four decades Redford has alternated between films to appease Hollywood studio heads (“Indecent Proposal,” anyone?) and ones to please himself (“Quiz Show”).

When he felt underutilized as an actor (“God, in `Out of Africa’ I felt like I was in a box,” he groans), he used himself differently.

Through the Sundance Institute, he has been the godfather of American independent film, and through the Institute for Resource Management, a catalyst for the environmental movement.

(Though it must be said that his “The Milagro Beanfield War,” “A River Runs Through It” and “The Horse Whisperer” were more eloquent briefs for protecting the purple-mountain majesty than any institute.)

Though he’s too robust to be thinking about epitaphs now, he has an answer at the ready when asked for one: “Can I get back to you?”

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