After all the Golden Boy roles, Robert Redford moves across a film screen with an aura of confidence and relaxed privilege that he wears like a country-club blazer. But while making his new film, "Lions for Lambs," the star and director found himself reconnecting to his youth in 1940s Los Angeles, a time and place far removed from any ivory towers.
"I grew up in a mostly Mexican neighborhood in South Los Angeles, and during the war it was fine," said Redford, who turned 70 this summer. "My father delivered milk. And everybody's working -- it was gas stations, garages, stores, you know, but they're working. There was this real camaraderie, with the paper drives and everybody sacrificing. And suddenly the war ended and this weird thing happened. Suddenly everything was about class. And then there was an anger you could just feel."
His family moved to Van Nuys, looking to escape some of the late-1940s tension, but Redford, a daydreamer who grew sullen when facing blackboards and textbooks, loathed the new neighborhood even more. In a quirky reversal of the familiar American impulse, he longed to get on any bus or train that would get him away from Southern California. His salvation came in a most natural way: a baseball scholarship to the University of Colorado, which got him out of town even though he promptly drank his way off the squad.
All of this personal history and geography circled back through Redford's mind while he was filming scenes for "Lions for Lambs," which opens the AFI Los Angeles International Film Festival tonight and, on Nov. 9, opens nationwide. The movie is split among three settings: a powerful senator's office in Washington, a California university campus and a frozen battlefield in the mountains of Afghanistan. For studio issues of budget, director Redford reluctantly agreed to use Simi Valley as a stand-in for Afghanistan. He found himself driving through the San Fernando Valley, that old home he never missed.
"How about that? Over the hill, it's the place I left -- the place I had to get away from and never wanted to see again -- and now I go back there and have to make it look like Afghanistan," he said with a surprisingly aggressive edge in his voice. "Here I have to go back and use it for a war."
"Lions for Lambs," which stars Meryl Streep, Tom Cruise, Peter Berg and Redford himself, is indeed about combat, but it is also about classism, citizen apathy and the modern rules of political engagement. The director who won an Oscar for his first film, "Ordinary People," in 1980 took the title for his seventh one from the words of a German general in World War I who, in appraising his British foes, saved his scorn for the high command and his praise for the field soldiers whom he considered "such lions led by such lambs."
The movie will instantly renew Redford as a target of conservative pundits, and its grim geopolitical topics aren't exactly crowd-pleasing fare. None of this seems to matter to Redford, but he also said emphatically that "Lions for Lambs" is about his practice of filmmaking -- not his preaching for change in politics.
"You can't change people's minds; I don't try that anymore," Redford said. "I spent years working on 'All the President's Men,' and after it came out, I thought, 'Boy, no administration will ever be able to get away with this kind of thing.' And it's worse, worse, worse. So I gave that up a long time ago, thinking there's films that are going to change anything. The only thing you can do is just do what you have to do."
On a recent afternoon, Redford sat chatting about the film and sipping coffee in a suite atop the Clift Hotel here in the Bay Area. In person, Redford is physically trim and confident in every gesture; he is also effortlessly articulate but not especially needy of approval nor reflexively given to posturing. That sets him apart from most younger actors and, well, most older ones too. The most interesting thing about being across a table from Redford? When he speaks, he's a filmmaker, but when he smiles, he's still pure movie star.
He had spent much of the day talking to journalists to promote the film, which (for a star who lives in Utah and loathes much of the movie-star machinery of Hollywood) is proof positive that "Lions for Lambs" is something important to him personally. It's also telling that he set aside time during the day to meet with college students. Like a cinema counterpart of Tom Wolfe, Redford with this project has gone back to the university for his energy and his art.
In the film, Streep plays broadcast journalist Janine Roth, a sort of weary and unsharpened version of Diane Sawyer, who has found that in recent years the hardest questions she has regard her own industry and its loss of standards and stamina in the face of political manipulation. She spends most of the film in a one-on-one interview in the office of Sen. Jasper Irving (Cruise), who is a neoconservative with a military pedigree and high-wattage smile. The senator is pushing forward a new military initiative in Afghanistan, and, while he jousts with the journalist, the film cuts away to its "lions," a pair of soldiers (Michael Pena and Derek Luke), who are in harm's way in agonizing fashion.
The third part of the film's triptych presents another office dialogue as a college professor named Stephen Malley (Redford) challenges and attempts to awaken the political passion of a bright young student (Berg) who has, over the course of one semester, decided that the only party system worth his time is the one that taps beer kegs.
For Redford, the most compelling duty as director was capturing the Cruise character. When the superstar's name was floated for the role, Redford was skeptical but then came around. Redford decided that Cruise's version of a politician could pull on the relentlessness of a Rick Santorum type; if Cruise's pilot character in "Top Gun" moved on to a post-military career, this would be his Reagan-shaped sensibility, Redford said.
"I think that at this point in his life Tom is looking for something new and something apart from what he's done," Redford said. "My initial thought was, 'Hmm, I don't know.' And then I thought about it. I said, 'Wait a minute. Considering where this character needs to go to make him more plausible, Tom had these all-American qualities -- the looks, the incredible intensity, a lot of energy, a kind of joyousness in what he does.' All of that tilted the character. I wanted to have him try to manipulate her and be younger. And then have her have to deal with her age. This guy is a charmer and a salesman. But selling what? Selling, winning and holding power. He's very dangerous, and that gets pretty interesting."
How interesting? The early reviews of the film have been divided -- some call it a winner, others say it's just windy -- but Redford said he knows he will be a hot target for the far right. "I've been told that someone on Fox said, 'What's Redford's problem with America?' So it's started already. They haven't even seen it. My problem with America is I love it and I worry about it."
In essence, this new film is about conservatives who care too much about winning and liberals who don't care enough about losing. The script was written by Matthew Michael Carnahan ("The Kingdom"), who also got a producer credit on the film with Redford, Tracy Falco and Andrew Hauptman. Redford pulled the script in several directions (Redford's old friend Streep, for instance, came on board only after her character was reworked by the director and Carnahan), and he fought the expected studio pressure to give the film an ending that was more upbeat.
Redford, a man who has enough Hollywood success and time logged that he will now make only the films he wants and in the manner he likes, laughed a sad laugh. He said he grew up close to Hollywood, but his sensibilities were never shaped by the "happy ending" culture.
"Look, the film is called 'Lions for Lambs,' and it's about the world right now and the way that world is working," Redford said. "Somebody has to get sacrificed. Or else it's just empty. That's the problem. But that's the story."