Redford jumps into politics with ‘Lions’

Robert Redford has never been soft-spoken when it comes to politics.

A longtime champion of environmentalism and American Indian rights, he acknowledges that he has made himself an easy target for right-wing media types who dismiss his convictions as the ravings of a liberal blowhard.

That doesn’t bother him. What does bother him, he says, is apathy, especially in a time that he considers one of the bleakest in American history.

“In the arc of my lifetime, which goes back to the second World War as a kid growing up in Los Angeles, I’ve lived through certain events — Joseph McCarthy, Watergate, Iran-Contra, and now this last six years,” he says. “If you look at all those times, the same mentality was in power, and in each one we came so close to losing some invaluable freedoms. Now, the pendulum has swung so far toward the abyss, if it swings much farther we’ll be on the brink.”

While Redford, 71, has never aspired to run for office — “I couldn’t deal with a system so constipated by compromise,” he says — he considers it his duty as an artist to cast a critical eye on politics and tell the kind of stories that provoke meaningful discourse about them. To that end, he chose to direct and star in “Lions for Lambs” (opening Friday), an overtly political drama, featuring Tom Cruise and Meryl Streep, that examines not only the military and Congress, but the media, which Redford believes has traded its integrity for profits.

Meryl Streep and Tom Cruise star in Robert Redford's “Lions for Lambs,” which opens Friday.

“During Watergate, the mediasaved us and our First Amendment freedoms,” he says. “But the moment came in the late ’80s when the media decided to go for market share, when certain newspapers allowed business to dictate content, and the writing was on the wall. You saw newspapers put box scores and box-office on the front page. And then you saw them slowly eliminate the criteria for good journalism.”

Convinced that the media will never again play as important a role in politics as it did during Watergate — a subject Redford knows well, having starred as Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward in “All the President’s Men” — he sought a project that would not deal exclusively with the Iraq war itself, but with the political climate that allowed it to happen.

He found that in Matthew Michael Carnahan’s script for “Lions for Lambs,” which weaves together the stories of a pro-war senator, two young soldiers on their way to Afghanistan and a complacent student who prefers frat parties to politics.

“Nobody has really torn apart and opened up how and why we got here, which is so wrong,” he says. “That’s what I was trying to do with this movie. I was intrigued by the triptych of the three stories. Could you thread education, politics, the media and the military together in a way that would be entertaining? The challenge is to make that both relevant and interesting.

“Now is the time to look at certain things in a way that we haven’t, and the film doesn’t try to deal solely with current events or use them as fodder for arguments or debates. It’s really about something a little bit deeper for me. Some people ask me, ‘What’s your problem with America?’ My problem is that I love America, and I hate to see what’s happened to it.”

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