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Until, that is, Redford entered middle age, when 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,” says Redford. “What was I supposed to do? Die in a car crash and stay young forever?”
Instead of doing anything so drastic, Redford looked for roles like The Candidate and Downhill Racer that made cannon fodder of his supposed vanity, and used his popularity and charisma to back a succession of politically charged, decidedly non-movie-star-ish projects that likely only could have been willed into being during the much-mythologized New Hollywood of the late 1960s and early 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 Native American history; the iconic frontier Western Jeremiah Johnson (1972); and, of course, All the President’s Men (1976), a movie to which Redford devoted four years of his life as producer and star. Even some of the overtly commercial projects he signed on to 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,” says Redford. “I so love this country, but I also get worried about it. I see it sliding away from itself.” Not that he’s convinced 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 Redford hopes may be discussed in the wake of Lions for Lambs, though he remains wary of the real possibility of effecting change through cinema, particularly among college-age audiences like the ones he’s 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’s 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 surmises, “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. 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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