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Robert Redford Gets Political

For much of his career, Robert Redford has had the clout to tailor characters to his image. A typical Redford role, for example, is the taciturn cowboy who shows the ropes to uptight city women (“The Electric Horseman,” “Out of Africa,” “The Horse Whisperer”). You get the feeling there’s some aspect of the owner of the Sundance Ranch in that character.

Yet a more common Redford role is this: the apolitical man in a political film.

So in “The Way We Were” Hubbell Gardner is either too smart or too weak (or both) to take the strong political stands of his paramour, Katie (Barbra Streisand), and so in “Three Days of the Condor” Joseph Turner is a CIA operative who “just reads books,” and so in “Brubaker” reform prison warden Henry Brubaker won’t compromise with the politicians who (literally) want to keep the bodies buried.

Even Bob Woodward in “All the President’s Men” is apolitical — in the sense that he’s a Republican who brings down a Republican administration. He doesn’t care about politics. He’s a journalist; he cares about the story.


“Mr. Dahlberg? Mr. Ken Dahlberg?”

Politics stink

Redford’s characters always have to be dragged into politics — most famously, or infamously, Bill McKay in “The Candidate,” who is tempted to run for U.S. Senate by a slick Karl Rove-ian figure played by Peter Boyle. During the campaign, McKay changes from a committed, grass-roots lawyer to a man who waffles on the big issues of the day (abortion, busing) and subsequently loses his soul. The movie’s famous last line, “What do we do now?” is supposed to be a chilling indictment of the political process — electing men who no longer think for themselves. But equally chilling, if less quoted, is the hearty congratulations his despised father, a former governor, delivers to him on election night: “Son, you’re a politician!” When it’s said, McKay looks stricken. He’s a man who can’t wake from the nightmare he’s in.

Politics stink in Redford’s films. Early in “Havana,” we get the following exchange between gambler Jack Weil (Redford) and revolutionary aristocrat Arturo Duran (Raul Julia):

Duran: Politics is what life is all about.
Weil: Not my life.
Duran: Everyone’s life, Mr. Weil. Isn’t politics just a kind of hope?
Weil: It’s still politics.

The film wants to be “Casablanca” — a love triangle between isolationist American (Humphrey Bogart, Redford), beautiful woman of Swedish descent (Ingrid Bergman, Olin) and committed revolutionary (Paul Henreid, Julia) — but, among the ways it fails, it fails most spectacularly this way: while Redford’s isolationist American may give up the woman he loves, as Bogart’s did, he never becomes politically engaged. Cuba in 1958 is not North Africa in 1941, after all. Bogart walks off into the fog with Claude Rains to fight the Nazis and we all applaud. But who does Redford get to fight? In Cuba, Castro takes over and we know how that ends (badly). Meanwhile the CIA operative heads off to Indochina and we know how that ends (badly).

Modern politics generally doesn’t allow characters to become as engaged as a Bogart during World War II. And Redford is one of the movie stars who has reflected this modern political disengagement.

Robert Redford on line two

The punchline, of course, is that Redford himself has always been politically engaged — particularly when it comes to environmental and Native American issues. Some of the documentaries he’s narrated include “Following the Tundra Wolf,” “To Protect Mother Earth” and “Sacred Planet.” Kind of a theme there. He received special thanks for Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” and narrated “Incident at Oglala,” about the conviction of Leonard Peltier.

An election can’t go by without seeing him stump for environmental causes and politicians who support environmental causes. A couple of years ago I came home to the following on my answering machine: “Hi, this is Robert Redford...” It was my favorite of the prerecorded political messages that season. Any calls today, honey? Oh, you know, just Robert Redford.

So maybe his apolitical man is as much a wish fulfillment as his taciturn cowboy. Maybe he simply wishes he didn’t have to get involved yet again to save another piece of pristine land from another round of developers with deep pockets and bad ideas.

Fighting ‘whatever’

Politics still stink in “Lions for Lambs,” Redford’s latest film about choices in post-9/11 America, but the kind of political disengagement we saw in Redford’s ’70s films is no longer an option. Back then, Redford’s characters had to be dragged into politics; now he’s dragging us into politics. “Get involved,” the film is saying. “Get involved,” Redford’s character, Prof. Stephen Malley, is saying. “Get involved,” Redford himself says as he stumps for the film.

He’s been saying it for a while now. “We’re surrounded by so much apathy,” he told the New York Times in December 2002. “It’s like people skim right past all news about the ozone hole and the wetlands being drained and junked by developers…”

Asked on “Inside the Actors Studio” for his least favorite word, Redford chose the mantra for the apathetic: “Whatever.”

It’s a shame “Lions” isn’t a better film. It’s split into three storylines. Both the Afghanistan storyline and the journalist storyline feel sad and hopeless, while the Redford storyline and the admonition to a new generation of slackers to get involved, to care, feels preachy. It doesn’t inspire us to get past the hopelessness it depicts elsewhere.

Here’s someone who enunciated those themes better. A politician running for office a few years back said the following: a campaign is about “whether people will have more power to shape their own lives or whether we’re going to lose that power… It’s the details that are hard — just how do you get people involved. Our lives are more and more determined by forces that overwhelm the individual. I don’t know. Maybe those questions can’t be answered in a political campaign. Maybe people aren’t ready to listen. But I’m going to try.”

That politician? Bill McKay in “The Candidate.”

—It’s Erik Lundegaard’s fervent wish to someday issue a non-denial denial. This article was originally published on MSNBC.com.