How ideological is Robert Redford?
Few filmmakers get painted with the liberal brush as often as Robert Redford. Once an actor-filmmaker who mixed in All-American stories ("The Natural," Quiz Show") with politically themed dramas ("The Candidate," "All the Presidents Men"), Redford in the latter phase of his career has become more polarizing. His 2007 anti-Iraq film "Lions for Lambs," with its earnest story about brave young soldiers and self-interested political leaders, lit a fire under conservatives, with Redford's public comments about foreign policy and the George W. Bush administration only fueling it.
The Sundance Film Festival founder's new movie, "The Conspirator," doesn't deal with the divisive stuff of contemporary cable news. It's about the personal plight of Mary Surratt, an alleged conspirator in the Lincoln assassination, and the prosecution she faced. Ideological statements are there if you're looking for them -- Surratt's trial parallels the instance of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed , and Redford's depiction of the Constitution under fire can be connected to the present day -- but Redford also upends conventional liberal thinking. The Union leadership, for instance, is shown to be insensitive to civil rights, while the Confederate protagonist is portrayed as the victim.
The director, though, said he believed some on the right would still bring their own baggage to the film, which he directed from James Solomon's screenplay. "I suspect no matter my attempts to have an equal and balanced piece of work, there's a predisposition to misinterpret my films," he told 24 Frames. "I put a lot of attention to authenticity. [But] I imagine no matter what I do it's going to be pushed over by some people."
In fact, Redford said he believes his previous film wasn't nearly as tendentious as its critics said it was. "When you think about 'Lions for Lambs,' it was misinterpreted by many. It was: 'There's Redford preaching again.' What I was trying to do was just put a spotlight on different segments of our society, looking at education's relationship with students and how prepared the military was when it went into Afghanistan and Iraq."
He said timing was a factor too. "It might have looked better had it come out later; it might not have looked so preachy."
Part of the predisposition Redford describes, however, may be the result of the director's own comments. At 75, the filmmaker still pulls no punches about what he sees as the sins of the right. "I can understand why Stanton [the Union Cabinet member who helped order a military tribunal for Surratt] was in a panic," he said. "But at the same time it was a classic example of self-interest. Whether it's Cheney or McCarthy, all these characters have suffered from the same thing: ideology and self-interest have blended together into a disturbing situation."
Photo: Robert Redford at "The Conspirator" premiere at Ford's Theatre in Washington. Credit: Kevin Lamarque / Reuters