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Up For The Challenge

Amid the rumble of war, the 'Lions for Lambs' actor-director sought to emulate the civil drama of '12 Angry Men.'

December 12, 2007|Geoff Boucher | Times Staff Writer

AS the title suggests, "Lions for Lambs" is a film about sacrifice and bravery and its director, Robert Redford, has not been coy regarding the film's decidedly unhappy ending and the climactic scene that plays out on a bleak Afghanistan battlefield.

"It was heartbreaking, it really was," Redford said. "And I knew it was coming."

Redford could have changed that ending, of course, by simply giving in to the pressure from studio executives and modern Hollywood convention to please the moviegoing crowd at all costs. But Redford said the imperatives of this story about modern polarized politics demanded blood. "There was no way to bring them back," he glumly said of his celluloid soldiers up on that bloodied ridge.

Just as Clint Eastwood has set himself apart in recent years as the rare serious-minded classicist in American filmmaking, "Lions" finds fellow septuagenarian Redford on his own path in making movies that are somehow both measured and maverick for their day. "Lions" is dialogue-intensive and relentlessly political and, in this era of routine digital wizardry, it is built around words, not numbers. The film has those literal battlefield scenes in Afghanistan, but the majority of screen time is taken up by two debates in tight office spaces, one between a politician (Tom Cruise) and a journalist (Meryl Streep) and the other between a college professor (Redford) and a gifted but apathetic student (Todd Hayes).

"The idea was to take the talking heads as a challenge and say, 'Look, most films these days are heavily dependent on action because the computerized technology makes special effects easier and easier and a car chase is an easy way to make films exciting,' " Redford said. "Plenty of films rely on all that, the audience expects it now, and that makes it even harder to make a movie about ideas and words and people. But it also makes it more challenging and more interesting. That challenge is what interested me."

Redford's directing career began 2 1/2 decades ago with a very different challenging surprise in "Ordinary People," the wrenching study of a family that lost a son in a drowning and then sank into their own cold, dark waters of grief. Redford won an Oscar for that film. Other shining moments as director included "A River Runs Through It" (1992) and "Quiz Show" (1994), films that use fly-fishing and game shows, respectively, as the unlikely forums for tales of troubled parents and children.

Like "Quiz Show," Redford's new film attempts to bottle up conflicts in small moments and word firefights. "Lions," he said, was inspired by the politicians of today who are "using words for manipulation rather than knives and guns." He compared the aspiration to "12 Angry Men," Sidney Lumet's 1957 adaptation of the Reginald Rose play, which is almost entirely confined to a jury room.

Redford concedes that he was nervous about many of his challenges on "Lions." He said he fretted over making each character credible in their point of view and not, for instance, reflexively undermining Cruise's conservative character, whom Redford feels is "a pretty scary guy" at his core. Then there was the balancing of the different parts of the triptych narrative he created. A third challenge he saw might come as a surprise; he wasn't sure the presence of three big names on the marquee was an obvious advantage.

"The thing I was the least bit interested in doing was a 'Hollywood star cast,' " he said. "There are some directors that feel like they need insurance of stars in a movie. I've never felt that. But in the end, it presented me with Meryl, who's one of the most accomplished actors in the business, and Tom having a go at something new, and I like that."

Redford did shy away from bringing in one other especially big name; at one point in the project he fell in love with the idea of using the forlorn Leonard Cohen song "Hallelujah" as a backdrop to the death of two wounded Army rangers. "I called Bono," the director said, "and I said, 'Look, I want to see if you can do a vocal. . . . ' " But in the end Redford decided that a new voice that late in the film might take the audience out of the moment on-screen.

For that same reason, he also resisted an impulse to show the death of two Army rangers (portrayed by Michael Pena and Derek Luke) as "just two dots on a screen" being monitored at a distant military operations outpost.

He flirted with the idea after a recent re-watching of "The Third Man" and its famous Ferris wheel scene in which the war profiteer played by Orson Welles dismisses the humanity of those specks walking on the Vienna sidewalks down below.

But for Redford, in his film, it was too late in the story to pretend the tragedy was faceless: "In this movie, by that point, we already know those dots."

The critics have not been especially kind to "Lions," which many say feels at times like an unwieldy blend of "Gallipoli" and "Paper Chase." The Times' Carina Chocano, for instance, called it a "static chamber piece" that "looks like a stage play and plays like a policy debate."

Some conservative pundits, meanwhile, have used the film to revisit their animus toward Redford, whom they view as a windy, misguided Hollywood liberal. Redford, a complicated man who for decades has portrayed golden boys on-screen, isn't fretting about his public image. He does hope people give his new film a chance though.

"I would hope that people would just sleep on it. That's how it came out. If I wanted something else I would have tied ribbons around certain parts of it and made the clear statement, you know, this is the answer. I don't think that's the way America works anyway."


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