He the People

Published on December 17th, 2013

Alex looks at Robert Redford’s career, and where we find Redford in 2013.

“Funny thing is, thirty years ago, a smart kid like you… probably would have been part of the movement yourself.”

It’s not so much the speech, it’s the speaker. This is a Robert Redford character talking to a young reporter, and Redford is saying some variation of what Robert Redford would say to a real twenty-something reporter in 2013. It’s a quick quote from a movie filled with lengthy exchanges on justice and action, but it’s said by Robert Redford, so it matters.

There is a central question at the core of All is Lost, J.C. Chandor’s new (and definitely good) film: “What is this movie about?” This question is not asked aloud in the film, because not many things are said aloud in the film at all, least of all bizarrely self-reflexive queries. This is a movie that only has one cast member and one setting. Nothing changes but the weather. All is the same. Our Man, Robert Redford, is awoken by his boat flooding after being punctured by a cargo container full of Reeboks, and from then on he spends the entire film simply trying to survive. So, there are a few things this film could be about:

1) Robert Redford’s career.
Obviously. When you make a conscious decision to make a film with one, mostly non-speaking character, the critical audience will spend a lot of time thinking about your sole casting decision, particularly since simply choosing to put this specific actor in your film has been a loaded decision since 1970.

2) The perseverance of the human spirit.
Even more obviously, and slightly less interestingly. There has never been a shipwreck movie that wasn’t about this in some way, like there’s never been a buddy cop movie that hasn’t been about masculinity.

3) Regret.
Probably.

4) America.
Of course.

With the exception of a few short exclamations in the film, there are no sentences for us to decipher. All of our cues are visual. We have the name of the boat Our Man is living on, the Virginia Jean, named after Chandor’s deceased grandmothers. We have Our Man’s opening voice-over monologue, reading a section of a letter we later see him pen. That’s about it. Even the opening voice-over, far and away the lengthiest speech of the film, is pointedly vague: we know Our Man is apologetic, and we know he almost certainly regrets something.

“I’m sorry. I know that means little at this point, but I am. I tried. I think you would all agree that I tried. To be true, to be strong, to be kind, to love, to be right. But I wasn’t.”

He continues on, talking about how he fought to the end, and that he will miss us all. Our Man has finally given up and accepted his place, despite his unreasonable perseverance up to this point.

All was once full of hope.

Redford’s life begins in Santa Monica in 1936, but Redford’s life as we care about it begins in 1969, around the moment when he admits to Butch Cassidy that he can’t swim. Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid wasn’t Redford’s first successful film – he was already an accomplished, Emmy-nominated television and stage performer by the time he met Katharine Ross – but Sundance is when Redford became a movie star, and in turn became interesting. All the best moments in the generally beloved film are performance-driven, and Redford more than holds his own with the already well-established and impossibly charismatic Paul Newman. The success of the William Goldman-scripted film took Redford into the movie star stratosphere, allowing Redford to begin his career as a Hollywood Icon. Redford took to his newfound status with an interesting balancing act of roles, mixing romantic dramas that most people would deem less intellectually challenging with films Redford felt were more interesting. And while he today seems to look back on his more romantic roles positively, he was once concerned it would be all he could do.

“I started to get uncomfortable. I felt I wasn’t free to do other things. So I’d go to Warner Brothers and say, ‘I’d like to make a film about the election process – about how we elect somebody based on cosmetics rather than substance – and call it The Candidate.’ They’d say, ‘If you do this larger film, we’ll let you make it.’ That allowed me to make small films within the studio system,” which is a not-dissimilar idea to Ryan Gosling taking a role in Crazy Stupid Love in order to do The Ides of March with fellow Redford-emulator George Clooney. Redford would spend the late 1960s and early 1970s balancing roles such as Hubbell Gardiner in The Way We Were with characters like Bill McKay in The Candidate, allowing him to remain both beloved by the masses and interesting at the same time.

Robert Redford has always had a big hand in shaping his own perception through his films, likely more than any other movie star of his era or before*. He somehow managed to become a sort of superstar auteur a decade before he ever actually directed a film.  When looking through his filmography as an actor post-Sundance Kid, it’s startling to see how many of his films take a decidedly Redfordian lean. From Downhill Racer’s look at the perils of competition, to The Candidate’s enjoyably satirical view of politics**, and a bigger budget Sydney Pollack spy film Three Days of the Condor taking those views of the American government mainstream, Redford wanted to make sure that people knew he was a smart person, one capable of both understanding and commenting on a society that he was currently tremendously popular in. Even The Sting and Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid are (kind of) about robbing from the rich and giving to the poor, albeit in an egregiously charming sort of way. Jeremiah Johnson, despite being comically awful, presented a plea for peace within what became a popular and well-received film, and his edition of The Great Gatsby did what Gatsby always does, present a look at the folly found in pursuing the American Dream. Of course, this was all prologue to Redford’s signature film, a film inspired by the Senate hearings he would watch in his trailer while on the set of Gatsby, and the film Redford would probably most like to be remembered for.

*Everybody does this now, though. Tom Cruise did, Will Smith is notorious for it, and Brad Pitt doesn’t do anything unless it makes people think he’s a socio-political genius.
**It often feels like it’s about Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, or perhaps just the way the media covered it.

All the President’s Men is, put simply, a fucking great movie. It’s entertaining, interesting, features a number of wonderful dolly shots, and manages to not mess up the most interesting story in the history of American politics. It is Redford’s most Redfordian role, in which we watch him (and Dustin Hoffman, as infamous reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein) take on the head of state and win. The film is about the power of providing average American people with the truth, even when that truth is bonkers, a goal that seems to be a constant thread through Redford’s career. All the President’s Men has held up well over time; it remains the best film ever made about weaponized typewriters. The problem comes later, when we figure out Redford hasn’t been entirely truthful about the making of the film.

“So… what do we do now?”

This is newly-elected fake senator Bill McKay talking, and the words are coming out of newly-elected movie star Robert Redford’s mouth. McKay has achieved an unexpected win, and he doesn’t know what to do with the spoils of the victory.

All the President’s Men was a highly acclaimed film at the time of its release, and its script is often a big part of this praise. William Goldman, the credited screenwriter, won an Academy Award for his work, but in more recent years, Redford has taken to claiming he more or less wrote the movie with director Alan J. Pakula (from a first draft by Goldman). In his 2011 biography, Redford details the filmmaking process beginning with Redford’s idea for how the film should work, and conveying that to his friend Goldman. He felt that the film shouldn’t be a traditional thriller like Three Days of the Condor because, “This story was allegory, about a certain innocence that was corrupted by Watergate. Woodward and Bernstein personified the innocence. They were the old school, the journalists who investigated, extrapolated, and worked to a standard. Because they were personally such a study in contrasts, I thought there was amazing psychological material to mine,” before moving into some oddly petty lines. “Bill, I knew, was very skillful. But I had reservations. When he wrote his novels, it was homage to his favorite novelists. When it came to Butch Cassidy, it was homage to his favorite buddy movies, like Gunga Din. One admired him for it. But what troubled me on a personal level was the fact that his views were caustic. It was fun to be in his company and hear him, until you thought, ‘What happens when this judgmental bit is turned on me?’ I became uncomfortable in some aspect of our friendship, and that should have warned me off.” The biography would go on to claim that nobody was ever particularly happy with Goldman’s drafts, and that eventually only about one tenth of Goldman’s work was left in the finished film. But other than that, Redford’s biography is generally pretty dismissive of Goldman’s work on the film, instead claiming that Redford and Pakula split the research portion of the work before coming together to refine the screenplay.

After the publication of this memoir, Richard Stayton, editor of Written By, a magazine about screenwriting, was troubled by these claims. He delved deep into the matter, and wrote a long editorial for his magazine, detailing his extensive research that makes a fairly decisive case for the final draft being remarkably close to Goldman’s original work. Goldman himself hasn’t chimed in, other than to say he had never written as many drafts for anything as he had for All the President’s Men, a statement that doesn’t line up with Redford’s assessment. Either way, somebody is lying, and it seems more likely that the liar is Redford. I’m certain All the President’s Men featured a lot of creative input from Redford, but he seems to have acted more as a producer than an incredibly dominant screenwriter. Nobody argues that the inception of the film was his idea, and Woodward and Bernstein themselves have credited Redford with suggesting they focus their book on the reporting process, as opposed to simply stating the facts. However, the pro-Goldman case is too strong to deny, a case that only becomes more damning whenever Redford talks about the film.

Earlier this year, Redford produced and narrated a Discovery Channel documentary called All the President’s Men Revisited, which looked back at the Watergate investigation and the making of the film about it. Despite the documentary being more about the break-in and its repercussions than the film about them, Redford is the pretty clear star of Revisited, often to the hindrance of the documentary. He is filmed in the Washington Post newsroom with Woodward, Bernstein, and editor Bill Bradlee, which does nothing but make him look self-serving. Of the people involved in the filmmaking process, only himself and Hoffman are shown in the documentary. Goldman is not interviewed*, and Redford often uses the term “I” when discussing the writing of the film. It’s a weird, albeit fascinating, documentary to watch because of this, one that is more flawed simply because of Redford’s stamp on it. But it’s probably hard for director Peter Schnall to tell a former number one box office champ such things, especially when the documentary is being produced by said champ’s Sundance Productions.

*Director Alan J. Pakula died in a car accident in 1998.

With the resounding critical and financial success of All the President’s Men, Redford began a new approach to acting, which was to only do so sporadically. He appeared in only three films for the rest of the decade, and generally spent the rest of the 1970s doing what he wanted. And ‘what he wanted’ included taking a stab at directing, with 1980’s Ordinary People, as well as creating a home for developing independent thought within filmmaking. Redford could see a cultural shift happening, and he wanted to make sure likeminded individuals had a place to go to make their films.

“The 70’s were the last time of variety in Hollywood,” he told Walter Kirn in 1997. “When Reagan came in you saw huge expensive cartoons being made: Popeye, Dick Tracy* and so on. I could see this industry going into a numbed-out place. Reagan was like a panzer division rolling across the country.”

*In fairness to Warren Beatty, Dick Tracy was released during year two of George H.W. Bush’s administration, but the point remains.

Redford elaborated on his thought process earlier this year, saying, “I thought, Uh-oh, we’re going to lose this opportunity to give voice to new work. Okay, there’s a space here where we can take new artists who are independent – who have skills but need help. We can provide mentoring and help them develop their skills to the point where they can get their films made. So that’s how it started.” Redford had spent so much of the 1970s railing against institutions within his films that he decided to build an institute that could produce new films.

The Sundance Institute is far and away the most interesting thing Redford has done with his career, and debatably the coolest thing any megastar has ever done to preserve the art form they thrive in. Through the Institute, which Redford founded in 1981, aspiring filmmakers are able to go to labs for everything from writing to scoring a film, and are given tips on how to best develop their work by people as respected as Paul Thomas Anderson, Denzel Washington, and Alexander Payne, among others, depending on the lab in question. The process often allows the filmmakers to earn grants as well, and Sundance’s relationships with big names in filmmaking can lead to further benefits, should the films in development get produced.

Feature films from Hedwig and the Angry Inch to this year’s Fruitvale Station have been developed at the Sundance Institute, which also offers assistance in other realms as well, including documentary filmmaking. The most recent notable Sundance Institute product is director Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild, the independent film of 2012. “Sundance Labs are really a process of self-investigation,” Zeitlin says. “They break you down, and tear apart your ideas and they force you to think about what exactly makes you like an idea. Every frame of the movie, I could tell you why it’s there, which I could not have done before the labs.”

“You want to be part of a continuity beyond your time,” Redford told the New York Times in 2002 about the reasoning behind the creation of the Sundance Institute, “Something self-sustaining that will change the way the world is going. I believe Sundance is building that.”

Throughout the 1980s, Redford dedicated himself to various occupations, from directing to acting, to continuing to build the Sundance Institute in his adopted home state of Utah. He also continued to fight for various social and environmental causes, a trend that began in the mid-1970s when he used his star power to fight a variety of utility companies that wanted to build a coal-fueled power plant on the Kaiparowits Plateau.

“I paid for that victory, paid for it because it’s an area of Utah I’ve loved. Did a book called The Outlaw Trail, where I rode it with [writer] Ed Abbey and a bunch of people. They weren’t having any public hearings, so I thought the only way to get attention was to go on 60 Minutes.”

Redford eventually won that fight, because he is a man with the power to avoid losing. This dedication to using his power to preserve the environment had long since been a part of his work, particularly in Jeremiah Johnson, and his political leanings are all throughout his earlier work. Even today, Redford can be found fighting against horse slaughtering with former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, or writing an op-ed about Barack Obama’s failure to follow through on the environmental platforms he ran on. Redford is a serious man in an unserious world, he says.

“Who is this Redford guy?”

“That’s a question I keep asking myself.” 

This is David Carr asking Robert Redford a question at a New York Times Talk earlier this year. It’s a throwaway moment from a lengthy exchange, merely meant to transition from one topic to another, a half-joke that anybody would respond with when faced with a similar question. But in this case, it seems more pertinent than most. Redford’s answer is meant as a joke, but it’s also a correct assessment, albeit in a much more truthful sense than most people mean.

Throughout his career, Redford has been reflective about his own place in culture and society from a pretty young age. He always knows his place, and pretty much as soon as he could, he began looking back at it. This reflection seems to begin in earnest with Sneakers, a 1992 film that is both charming nonsense and an abstract look at how Redford sees himself. The film begins with a younger version of Redford’s character in college in 1969, as he and his best friend use hacked networks to redistribute conservative funds to various liberal organizations while insulting Richard Nixon. When Redford goes out for pizza*, his friend is arrested and we find out dies in prison**. But when we flash forward to the modern day caper this all sets up we find Redford, who has been forced to change his identity, faced with a meeting with two National Security Agency officers who know his secret. Redford has since started to use his talents for profits, leading a team of security specialists who are hired to attempt to break into banks and corporations to test their security systems. The gray-suited gentlemen from the NSA want Redford to complete a job in exchange for his freedom, which he reluctantly accepts. The film is entertaining enough, if exceedingly corny and even more nineties: it features River Phoenix, Dan Aykroyd as a conspiracy theorist named ‘Mother,’ and David Strathairn as a blind technological wizard named ‘Whistler.’ Hacking is featured prominently. But it begins Redford’s journey of looking inward; Sneakers at times feels it’s about Redford’s own career, a feeling that will permeate all of the non-romance films that he appears in for the rest of his career. The ending of the film doesn’t so much solve Redford’s character’s flawed relationship with Ben Kingsley as much as it reaffirms that Redford himself thinks conservatives are the fucking worst.

*Between this and his quest for a cheese sandwich just before his office is taken down in a murderous rampage in Three Days of the Condor, Redford characters tend to get hungry for less than stellar food at convenient times.

**Until the twist, in which David Paymer grows up to be a villainous, ponytailed Ben Kingsley.

Redford’s post-President’s film career is a slew of mostly bad, uninteresting movies. Indecent Proposal and The Horse Whisperer are more interesting for the phrases they’ve helped popularize in jokes than the actual content of their films. I haven’t seen Havana, but it seems like an unappealing film about a subject I find tremendously appealing. The Legend of Bagger Vance is profoundly bad. Redford spent time coming and going from the Hollywood landscape until 2001, the year he decided he wanted to come back without calling it a comeback. In the fall of that year, both The Last Castle and Spy Game were released a month apart from each other, films in which Redford was the undeniable star, and was able to help further control his message.

Since these films were American action films released when I was a teenager, I saw both of them, as this was the only genre a fifteen year old me was concerned with. I liked each of them, despite feeling Spy Game could have used more gunfights and The Last Castle more Delroy Lindo. Watching them each again in 2013, The Last Castle is terrible, but incredibly Redfordian, while Spy Game is mediocre, and incredibly Redfordian. In The Last Castle, Redford is a Lieutenant General who is sent to jail for disobeying a presidential order (because of course), and tries to change the way the prison is run by its unimpressive warden, a colonel who has never seen combat (because of course). The film is all about the old guard being better than the new, inexperienced guard, and when the warden eventually kills Redford for attempting to raise an inverted American flag in the prison yard – a sign of mayday meant to signify the prisoners are not being treated properly – Redford’s dying goal is truly accomplished when the warden completely misunderstood his actual intent. Redford raised the flag properly, showing America how he feels it should be treated in the face of those who don’t agree with his ideals.

Spy Game dealt more with preserving hope for future generations, and Redford’s view of the modern America, which is not so subtly hinted at by the burned American flag his aging Central Intelligence Agency operative keeps framed on his wall. After Brad Pitt’s character, CIA agent Tom Bishop, was captured by the Chinese government while trying to free his girlfriend from a prison in Shanghai, Redford is called upon by CIA executives to answer some questions about Bishop’s recruitment and training. This allows for lengthy flashback sequences, in which we see Pitt and Redford together, hanging out, being buds, and Redford teaching Pitt the ropes of being a superspy/superstar. When Redford suspects that he’s being asked for this background information on Bishop merely so the CIA can find a reason to let Bishop die, however, he resorts to classically Redford tropes. He first calls in the media, assuming that once the American people know about Bishop, the CIA won’t be able to cover it up. When this tactic fails, he uses his web of contacts and even his life savings to set up an operation to free Bishop himself, which he successfully does before riding off into the sunset of his retirement in his Porsche. He is apparently not at all worried about the possible repercussions, because Redford does nothing if not care about future generations, and he felt Bishop was the kind of guy he wanted to have around after he was gone, no matter the cost.

But Redford is not really gone, just only occasionally here. After the total failure of The Last Castle, and the mild success of Spy Game, he once again backed away from acting, only appearing in movies like The Clearing and An Unfinished Life, movies that have remained almost entirely unseen. His next directorial effort, 2007’s Lions for Lambs, was more than a little messy, and his 2010 follow-up The Conspirator was messier. 2013, however, is another return, with both All is Lost, and his April drama The Company You Keep, a movie that (again) questions the role of the media and (again) asks the youth what they’re going to do with their future. Directed by and starring Redford, the film involves an extensive look back to Redford’s youth, as he plays a former member of the Weather Underground coming to terms with whether or not the struggle he was a part of in the 1960s and 1970s was worth the fight. Redford’s done thinking about these things, so he looks to a young newspaper reporter to try to solve these unsolvable problems for him. And then he has to hope he’s not wrong for letting go when he does.

“…”

This is a non-quote from All is Lost, not-said by Robert Redford. But we see his face, so we know what it means.

If one is to compare Redford to the other movie stars throughout the 1970s, there is a key difference: Redford is more remembered for his looks and charisma than anything else. His prettiness is oppressive. Al Pacino is a brilliant, intense actor, and most people would use the same words to describe Robert De Niro. Dustin Hoffman was a powerful performer as well, albeit in a more human and personable way. Redford was in a special world; he was the movie star who was only a passable actor, so his choices outside of a movie set became more important than his choices with his line readings. He cared less about how he read the lines than what the lines said about him. This is not necessarily an insult.

The thing about Redford as a performer, though, is that he’s immensely watchable in a way few people are. His acting never blows anybody away, but it’s never problematic. Most acting isn’t even mediocre, and he’s much better than that. He’s got the same kind of charisma as a less kinetic Tom Cruise; Redford is charming just because he knows who he is, what you want out of him, and how to provide that. He never tries too hard, because he doesn’t need to. But that charisma is the one thing Lee Strasberg can’t teach you, and it’s a highly valuable commodity. What Redford did with his charisma and that very particular talent is more than interesting enough to justify the way he was viewed. He saw himself as a celebrity community organizer, so he put himself in charge of organizing various communities. Some of these worked out, while others didn’t; some stuck around long enough that he simply tolerates their existence while publicly loathing them. Redford sees the necessary evils, and he surely regrets some of them. He knows the struggle is ever-present, and he knows the chances of succeeding in a way that is a net positive for society are typically slim. But he tries anyway. In describing how he manages to stay so active at 77, Redford describes himself as “Spring-loaded. The way to deal with arthritis is you keep moving. As long as I can play hard tennis, as long as I can ski or ride a horse – all kinds of things can come your way. But as long as you can, do it. People who retire die. My dad retired and died shortly after. Just keep moving.”

Like so many of Redford’s good movies, All is Lost ends with a question. As we see Our Man finally retire from the struggle, allowing himself to sink into the water and towards his death, he sees a flashlight shining into the water from above. He clues in to what that is, and begins swimming upward to it. A hand reaches out for Redford, and the film quickly fades to white just as Our Man grabs it. We get no hard answer as to whether or not this actually happens in the reality of the film, and the amount of time that Our Man floats submerged in the water makes it seem unreasonable that he didn’t drown. And that’s the question of the film: was it worth it? Did the struggle mean anything?

I don’t know, and that’s the problem. I want to believe that an actor shaping his career in a way that allows for mild, if still mostly interesting, social criticism of the world around him means something. I will laugh at jokes about the folly of these pursuits, the inherent humour of Bono’s sunglasses being inside the walls of the United Nations, but I secretly want to think that it does something. Celebrities are as easily corruptible as politicians, because the line between celebrity and politician gets smaller with each passing day. We’re done electing Redford; the films he chooses to appear in these days are not burning up the box office. The Company You Keep was seen by few, All is Lost will be seen by fewer. Captain America: The Winter Soldier would be just as successful financially if Redford’s role was played by Abe Vigoda. Redford is firmly in the ‘Bill Clinton visiting Haiti’ portion of his career; we all know who he is, and we understand he’s making generally good choices with that notoriety, but we don’t follow those choices with nearly as much interest as we used to. He’s not talking to the majority anymore, he’s mostly a reflection of himself.

The longer something is around, the more time it has to corrupt its own ideals. It’s a hopeless pursuit to assume otherwise. To create a film institute, or to attempt to preserve the environment or enact a change within our world, is an inevitably hopeless pursuit, but it is the hope that removes us from the struggle. We keep moving.

“All is lost once we stop trying to say otherwise,” said Robert Redford, probably.

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