Robert Redford Insists On Asking Questions in Lions For Lambs
The legendary actor-director discusses his latest political think piece.
Robert Redford's war drama Lions for Lambs makes no attempts to disguise itself. It's not, for example, a family drama about a fallen soldier, or a sexy spy thriller that takes place in Iraq, or even an action film about oil and terrorism. In fact, the most polarizing thing about Lions for Lambs is its unwillingness to be anything but a film about America at war. Be it loved or hated, Lions represents an old brand of lefty awareness-raising that makes its agenda plain and its (self) criticisms perfectly clear. Ironically it's just this simplicity of purpose that inspires division. Maybe this brand of "straight talk," isn't one audiences are used to, but Redford has a conviction and a plan to bring the film to young audiences. "Fundamentally and in the end," Redford says, "this film is about the future."
The story of Lions revolves around the fate of new recruits Ernesto Rodriguez (Michael Peņa) and Arian Finch (Derek Luke). While these two soldiers are deployed to a new strategic "point" (far smaller than a base), their former professor Malley (Redford) tells their story to his present student Todd (Andrew Garfield) to caution against apathy. Meanwhile, Republican Senator Jasper Irving (Tom Cruise) exposes his confidential strategy to veteran Journalist Janine Roth (Meryl Streep), even as Irving's strategy is underway.
Redford lends a loving patriotism to this "head, hands, heart" story. "It's legitimate," he insists, "every point of view addressed in this film." On the theoretical side, Streep and Cruise battle over the loss of political and journalistic integrity. In the spirit of loving concern, professor and student pit new cynicism against weatherworn idealism. And as expected, the angle of action is painfully burdened with consequences that this national body can neither afford nor avoid. And this national body is the one Redford cares about. "I'm worried about my country, obviously."
"I've never in my lifetime, and I've lived through some pretty great events -- WWII, McCarthyism, assassination of a president and a vice president, Iran [Contra] and other upheavals -- I've never seen my country in as bad a shape as it is now," Redford said. "How it's seen on the world stage. How we're perceived. What one single administration can do to trash so many categories. It breaks my heart."
Robert Redford in Lions for Lambs
"[The enemy] is not the point of the film -- we've seen the enemy in documentaries and TV shows and many films dealing with Iraq and Afghanistan," Redford explained. This explains why we never see the enemy; their representation "was meant to be like a concept -- the enemy is the enemy is the enemy, like a rose is a rose is a rose." Far more concerned with turning an understanding camera towards the turmoil at home, Redford chose to deal with the enemies "more impressionistically" because he "wanted to stay focused on the guys and their effort to do the right thing: see them [the soldiers] struggle against impossible odds, to stay alive and to be soldiers, not knowing what was happening. Focusing on the enemy would have been another distraction."
Though Lions for Lambs revolves around the story of the two recruits, the larger part of screen time is dedicated to the debates of the three main stars: Redford, Cruise and Streep. In its overview of cultural debates, the film is strikingly comprehensive, but to get there, it has to do a good bit of talking. But even in its moments of self-conflict Lions is not off limits to self-criticism. Redford said when he first read the script, "I thought, 'This could be tough.' Talking heads in a room is not where audiences are these days. And then that challenged me. Can you make people care? That became a challenge I decided to go for."
So how then, can a diligently sincere film that proffers engagement manage the fact that it's swimming in speech? "You're dealing with the very issue the film's talking about, and you've got it on yourself," he said with a recognizable gentility, proving the highest honor at Redford's table is reserved for personal conviction.