Soon, Redford had two powerful allies willing to ante up with him his Out of Africa co-star Streep and Cruise, who saw Lions not just as a potential starring vehicle for himself but as the perfect flagship production for the newly resurrected United Artists studio, which Cruise and producing partner Paula Wagner assumed control of last year. "Just the idea that Tom was interested in it was the first thing that intrigued me," says Redford, noting that the senator character was originally written as both older and African-American, something of a Colin Powell surrogate. "Then I started to think about the qualities that Tom exhibited on film, which were intensity, a kind of all-American energy, and an appealing youthfulness. And I began to see him in the skin of this guy who's fundamentally going to be running for office all the time."
A canny move, the casting of golden boy Cruise makes the character seem like a souped-up, neocon version of the senatorial aspirant Redford himself played in 1972's dark political satire The Candidate, a man whose message grows shallower as his sideburns grow shorter, his salt-of-the-earth idealism giving way to glib, TV-friendly sound bites. But whereas Redford's Bill McKay is left to ponder "What do we do now?" as throngs of supporters rush into his dressing room upon his victory, Cruise's Jasper Irving harbors no such self-doubt. He merely barrels forward, never looking back the personification of a political culture in which mistakes are admitted only in what political commentator William Schneider has termed the "past exonerative" tense.
"He presents something to think about," Redford says, "because of the way he doesn't answer questions. He appears to but doesn't, and he stays on message maddeningly."
While Streep's veteran newshound grills Irving about a "new" strategy for Afghanistan that sounds suspiciously like Creighton Abrams' sure-fire plan for turning the tide in Vietnam, the silver-tongued politician repeatedly assures her that there's no point in sitting around analyzing the past if we do, the whole house of cards could come tumbling down. "And he's got a point," Redford allows, "but what you should be thinking about is that he created the fact that there even is a point like that to be made. It's that kind of thinking that got us into a war we shouldn't have been in that got us in prematurely, with poor planning and for all the wrong reasons. And then we were lied to on top of that. We've seen that one before."
Several times, in fact. "When I think about the arc of my lifetime," Redford says, running his fingers through his hair, the hat having migrated to a nearby table in his hotel suite, "I realize that I've lived through historical periods where certain events occurred that carried the same pattern: McCarthy, Watergate, Iran-Contra, and now this. When you stop to think about those moments, you realize there's a certain repetition. It's the same mindset every time, the same sensibility that inhabits the characters: paranoia, obsession with power, ego, insecurity, winning at any cost."
Back when Redford and director Michael Ritchie made The Candidate together, the producer-star envisioned the film as the second installment in a trilogy that would take winning specifically, "the pyrrhic side of winning" as its subject. The first installment, Ritchie's 1969 Downhill Racer, cast Redford as the headstrong Olympic skier Dave Chappellet, who learns the hard way that there's always someone younger, faster and even more ambitious ready to steal your spotlight. The third was intended to focus on the world of business, but Redford never found a suitable script. Now, with Lions for Lambs, he has effectively finished what he started 38 years ago, by making a film in which everything higher learning, journalism, politics is reduced to the level of a transaction, a devil's bargain.
Redford likes that the movie raises more questions than it answers, leaves its three storylines dangling in irresolution, and doesn't let any of its characters off the hook, whether it's the pacifist professor who has inadvertently led his students into a combat zone, or the reporter forced to choose between abetting the government propaganda machine and watching her career go down in flames. None of that seems likely to curb accusations that Lions for Lambs is a piece of Democratic agitprop, an anti-war PSA in art-movie clothing. (Reviewing the film after its London Film Festival premiere last month, Variety opined that Lions "uses a lot of words to say nothing new.")