October 11, 2007

Redford reaches out to younger generations

Half an hour before Robert Redford’s new film Lions and Lambs previewed at Doc Films, a queue of hundreds beginning in front of Palevsky Cinema stretched outside and ended on the last squares of sidewalk before the Midway.

Maybe the turnout wasn’t a surprise, considering all the advantages of the event. Not only was the preview free and open to the public a month before its national release date, but Redford himself, along with two costars, agreed to field a question-and-answer session after the screening. In another sense, though, this was a bizarre audience. Sure, any respectable movie buff will know Redford for his role as the Sundance Kid, and the average college girl will have a thing or two to say about how well he’s aged. But for most students here—even students who waited in line for his movie—Redford is a figure of their parents’ generation. Plenty of kids here have never even heard of him.

On the flipside, surely press junkets and hardcore fans thronging to an early debut in, say, L.A., would have been more valuable PR-wise than a follow-up in the Maroon. Why would Redford come to this campus, often stereotyped as being out of touch, to answer questions from a bunch of kids just looking to meet someone famous?

It seems that Redford is practicing what he’s preaching. Take this defining moment of Lions for Lambs, a scene between journalist Janine Roth (Meryl Streep) and Senator Jasper Irving (Tom Cruise): Roth asks Irving why the U.S. concentrated its forces in Iraq instead of Afghanistan after 9/11, to which Irving replies in annoyance, “When will you people stop asking the same questions?” Roth wearily responds, “Until we get the answers.”

Lions for Lambs is all about questions. “The film delivers no answers,” Redford said frankly after the screening. The questions it asks are ones that most filmmakers would drop like hot potatoes. Why did we go to war? Why can’t our leaders get us out of it? Why do some volunteer to fight when they don’t believe in the cause? And why do we respect them for it? The film doesn’t assume answers, and it’s that humble quality that enables the actors to engage in more critical inquiry than they’d get from an E! Entertainment Television reporter.

The film tracks three pairs of characters through a pivotal hour of their lives: a political science professor struggling to convince a student of his potential, a GOP senator trying to sell a journalist on his new military strategy, and two American soldiers, stranded yards away from the enemy in the frigid Afghan wilderness.

The college setting of the first plotline made the actors dig a bit into their own experience. “I was enormously attracted to frat life,” said Redford, “so much so that I was kicked out in a year.” His real education came when he traveled to Europe. “People challenged my views and I was humiliated by the lack of answers I had,” he explained.

He concluded, “The more you can acquire an education, the better.”

Andrew Garfield, who plays the disillusioned student Todd Hayes, had to do some research for the part. “I saw the fraternity life head-on, and it was fascinating and disgusting at the same time.” He admitted that his own aspirations weren’t always particularly cerebral. “Until three years ago, I wanted to be Michael J. Fox and make Back to the Future 4.” Lions and Lambs, however, was a sobering project he welcomed. “Thank God there is a big studio movie that goes where no one else has really touched yet,” he said.

There were plenty of lighter points during the conversation. A middle-aged woman in the audience expressed her appreciation for the scene in which Streep’s character suffers hot flashes, saying, “I really related to that.” When someone asked Redford if Cruise was cast because of or in spite of his blemished public image, Redford responded coolly, “So what you’re really asking is, am I a whore or not?” And when Redford’s cell phone rang in the middle of a question, his costar Michael Peña remarked that it was probably “Rudy Giuliani’s wife” on the line.

Though many of the questions the film raises are familiar, Redford insists that the film isn’t, at heart, about current events. “Things are changing so rapidly, it would’ve been a mistake to focus on the issues,” he said. The issues, however, serve an important role—they get the audience to think about what’s wrong with our country and what we’re doing to stop it.

“Why should I get involved in a diseased process?” Redford asked, paraphrasing the dilemma of Garfield’s character. “The counterpoint would be—well, maybe that [process] is why you should. It’s your future.”