Don’t expect the White House to invite Robert Redford over for tea anytime soon. Or for him to oblige either.
The legendary actor and filmmaker participated in a question-and-answer session at Harvard last Thursday, following a packed screening of his new movie “Lions for Lambs” at the Carpenter Center. Joined by two actors in the film, Michael Peña and Andrew Garfield, Redford imparted both his intentions in making the movie and his view of the current political situation in a discussion moderated by Stephen Rosen, the Kaneb Professor of National Security and Military Affairs, and Michael Hiscox of the Government Department.
“Lions,” starring Redford, Meryl Streep, and Tom Cruise, is a direct criticism of the Bush administration and its handling of the ongoing War on Terror. It portrays a young U.S. politician (Tom Cruise) who will stop at nothing—even the cost of innocent lives—to win the war against Afghanistan. Redford was even more critical during the discussion at the Carpenter Center, expressing his frustration with the failures of the administration’s policy in Iraq.
“He thinks he’s won,” said Redford in reference to Cruise’s character. “That’s reflective of a current kind of quality today with our leaders who think they’re always winning and won’t face the fact that they’re not.”
Redford also pointed to politicians’ lack of consideration for foreign customs and resort to brash decisions as contributing to the decline of America’s status in the world.
“Our reputation on the world stage has been pretty well trashed. That didn’t need to happen,” he said. “If our leaders are going to lead, particularly in the military where we’re going to go into countries with force, they have an obligation to understand the culture they’re going into...I don’t think there are any leaders at the moment who have done that.”
Redford, dressed in jeans, a dark button-down shirt, and a tan, suede blazer, looked every bit the college professor—the role he plays in the film—and even imparted a history lesson on American errors during the Vietnam War. He stressed the importance of looking back and analyzing past events in order to prevent the same mistakes from reoccurring.
“They asked for our obedience [following 9/11], and they asked for our trust, and we gave it to them. I resent that rip-off,” he said. “When I see the consequence of us shutting up on our ability to express our freedom of speech, our freedom of dissent, and say, ‘Wait a minute, what proof do you have?’...Those questions weren’t asked.”
Garfield and Peña spoke of how “Lions” affected their own political views.
Garfield, wearing jeans and a white shirt, layered with a grey sweatshirt and jacket, could easily have fit into the audience of college students. His British accent came as a surprise, given his impeccable American accent in the film, which was his first major motion picture.
The film helped to open his eyes to today’s political problems, he said.
“Maybe there are people who don’t need a nudge or a push, maybe they’re already active enough, but I know the majority of my friends need that push,” he said.
He criticized apathetic students several times, particularly those he came in contact with during shooting on University of Southern California’s campus. “I saw some real assholes at USC,” he said.
“The kids I met on the USC campus, they need to see this movie. There is a big percentage of us, maybe they don’t go to ‘Hahvahd,’ that really need that kind of initial engagement to become active.”
Peña, who held minor roles in “Crash” and “Babel,” agreed. “There are a bunch of bright minds here. I dropped out of high school, so I don’t even know what your world is like, but it looks pretty awesome...I don’t have the Harvard mind but I have the aesthetic mind,” explaining that he hopes his portrayal will inspire others to activism.
Redford lamented the corruption of not only politics, which he called a “system that takes good people and eats them for breakfast,” but also the media and Hollywood.
“There were a few people in the media, several stalwart reporters, but they got overwhelmed because of the fear card that was being played, saying ‘You are either for us or against us, if you’re not for us, you’re unpatriotic, you’re un-American,’ and that scared the shit out of everybody,” he said.
With regard to Streep’s reporter character, he commented on the confines of a corporate-controlled media full of spins, lies, and double-speak. “What we reveal is how trapped she is in a profession that lost some of its ethics a while ago,” he said.
“She wants to tell the truth. She says, ‘I can’t write this story. There’s no truth in it. It’s all propaganda,’ and the editor says, ‘Are you kidding? Do you think upstairs is going to go for that?’”
Redford, who founded the indie-heavy Sundance Film Festival in 1978, extended his reflections on media to today’s filmmaking community. “Hollywood is not what it once was. It’s a business and nothing more...fundamentally, it’s about making money.”
But Redford was optimistic about the current generation, expressing his hope that this film would push people to start asking questions and insist that today’s leaders be upfront.
“The biggest thing for young people today is to demand some new vehicle for getting to the truth because you’re not going to get it in this stream of stuff...There’s got to be some mechanism to stop it, and I think it starts in the educational system at schools like this.”
Garfield was a bit more cynical.
Speaking about previous college interviews the cast had participated in, he said, “I was looking at the young, enthusiastic journalists, and thinking, ‘When are you going to lose your idealism, your integrity?’”
—Staff writer Victoria D. Sung can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.