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. 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, suffering through one of those standardized achievement tests that are the bane of every school 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, Redford has stayed on the lookout for the subtle fissures in seemingly flawless façades, whether it be 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). 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, produced by, and starring Redford, 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 on 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 was 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.
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 itself. It's the sort of theatrical premise that wouldn't have seemed out of place on one of the socially relevant Sixties television anthology series where Redford did some of his first screen acting. But if Lions for Lambs, which springs 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 fully possesses the strength of its own convictions, and which pursues them with a 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 currently in release, The Kingdom.
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 costar Streep, and Cruise, who saw Lions not only as a potential starring vehicle for himself, but also 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."
Redford likes that the movie raises more questions than it answers, leaves its three story lines 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 which seems likely to curb accusations that Lions for Lambs is a piece of Democratic agitprop, an antiwar PSA in art-movie clothing. (Reviewing the film out of 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!"