Night of the HyphenatesCruising with Redford into Berlin, Report & Review
- The Kino International Berlin on the amazing Karl Marx Allee - still rightly proud of housing one of the finest screens in Europe - was completed in 1963, the same year Robert Redford struck his first property claims in the Utah mountains and one year after Tom Cruise was born. In October 2007 both movie icons converged on the magnificent former GDR cinema showcase to attend a full evening’s exclusive premiere presentation of Redford’s latest directorial work, Lions for Lambs (2007) - as sponsored by Der Spiegel and the might of Hollywood synergies: 20th Century Fox, MGM, and Cruise’s own United Artists (Oct 24th, 18.30-22.00). The film was then followed by a podium discussion featuring Stefan Aust (Manager, Der Spiegel), Professor Heinrich August Winkler (Historian, Humboldt Berlin), Joschka Fischer (former Foreign Minister, Germany), and, sat between them, Mr. Redford himself.
Three hours before, though, the fresh October night was favourable to the hundreds of on-lookers who flanked the red carpet outside the International Kino, overseen by the Alexanderplatz TV Tower that glowed purple, gold and green in the Berlin night sky. By 6. 40 Cruise, Forbes magazine’s most powerful world celebrity in 2006, was posing with his wife Katie Holmes for the bank of frantic camera personnel from Sat 1, Reuters, Spiegel, and Pro Sieben.
When he and his production team as led by Paula Wagner arrived on stage to a packed audience at 7.50 empty beer bottles could be already heard underfoot clinking their way to the stage. Firstly, Cruise was quick to praise his director and co-producer, an artist and man he greatly “admired” and proud that their film together was the first off the block from the “new United Artists”, the company he bought soon after his 14 year relationship with Paramount was terminated in August 2006 by VIACOM CEO Sumner Redstone.
Studio Chief Cruise took the stage to kiss good-bye to Berlin where, for the last two months, he has been filming Valkyrie. Awkward press coverage on set accidents, injuries and location prohibitions were soon forgotten as he claimed to have “...studied and tried to understand the history of your country", that it had been “a unique experience” and that he and his family were “...not ready to quite let go” of the city and the country that had been so hospitable. “When we leave tomorrow you will be missed" he made clear. With a warm applause and his prompt departure from the stage, the monumental silver laced curtains widened slowly and the celebrated trailers for News Corporation’s 20th Century Fox and MGM heralded the start of the film. The Berlin event, then, following similar openings in New York and London, was more than just about a film. It was a statement of industry presence.
It easily escapes notice that despite the number and range of films (over 30) Redford has only directed himself in one other film - The Horse Whisperer of 1998. Now, at the age of 71, what fires the core conflict in his latest work centers upon the younger generation, which he feels, has been “distracted” by the onslaught of new technologies - the Internet and entertainment TV, he mentioned specifically as examples, and “for reasons we won’t go into tonight”. Concerns about the derelict state of U.S broadcast media, of course, are not new to Redford. Since producing and playing Bob Woodward in All The Presidents Men (1976) Redford has had a keen interest in the mix of corrupted politics and a failing standards in U.S news media. In the seventies he depicted a noble presidential grassroots campaign ground down by polls, ratings and televisual good image (The Candidate, 1972), in the 1990s he undercut the seductions and subtle evasions of contemporary Reality TV in a retrospective unveiling of the NBC quiz show scandals of the late 1950s (Quiz Show, 1994); and two years later he played opposite Michelle Pfeiffer as the jaundiced cable news producer Warren Justice in Up, Close and Personal of 1996. The commercial pressure under which the former ace Washington D.C reporter must grudgingly operate - “if it bleeds it leads”- is a knowing measure of the failed aspirations of 1976 where two valiant underdog journalists (Woodward/Redford, Bernstein/Hoffman) were shown to be central in detonating the vilely corrupt Nixon administration. Since then CBS is part of VIACOM, NBC belongs to General Electric and Disney owns ABC.
Answering the auteurist call, then, Redford, returns in Lions for Lambs (2007) to a theme he has been warming to for forty years - as hyphenate producer, director and actor in his own right. Again, according the genre, it’s the same tortured wrangling over media ethics, political deviations from truth, and played out against another foreign war.
As Redford acknowledged later, the film tries to tackle a central dramaturgical challenge, since there are "…very few films that use dialogue as a dynamic...(it was a) challenge to take the dialogue down to the bones”. This becomes increasingly apparent as the film crosscuts between two extended interview exchanges: in his California office Professor Stephen Lacey (Redford) tackles with the failing commitment of a promising student (British actor Andrew Garfield), while at the same time over in his Washington D. C office, Top Gun Senator Jasper Irving of West Point and Harvard (Cruise) attempts to convince broadcast journalist Janine Roth (Meryl Streep) of a new military initiative for Afghanistan - a story exclusive which she is expected to cover. What stitches these exchanges together is the third corner of the “triptych” (Redford), Irving’s military initiative now turning to disaster on a mountaintop in East Afghanistan. Here, African-American Arian (Derek Luke) and Hispanic-American Ernest (Michael Pena) and, as it happens, two of Lacey’s former students, are stranded Rangers fighting a nighttime contest against wounds, snow blizzards and the encircling Taliban. Within minutes, therefore, we are swiftly parachuted into the three main centres of power and influence that connect education, politics and media - the rich brew that, according the U.A marketing, generates Redford’s “wake-up call to America”.
Yet it soon becomes obvious, that’s where scriptwriter Mathew Michael Carnahan wants us to stay, and in a film, which for Redford, is designed to make us “stop and think”. However, the High Noon momentum (both office meetings are scheduled for an hour) is punctured by flashback scenes in classrooms, lecture rooms, and a restaurant, which leads to Lacey’s frustrated attempt to derail his student’s (respected) voluntary enlistment. These sequences, though crucial for the plot and the shading of Arian and Ernest, merely stagger the little progress that’s made on the West Coast - where Lacey now tries to engage with his student’s cynicism and on the East where Roth/Streep is confronted with her own complicity in the post 9/11 rush to war. The news media as a Windsack, as Irving caustically puts it.
The kaleidoscopic coverage of headline themes, the wasting consumer culture, political disengagement, news bias, Washington D. C ambitions, war as industry by other means, is for a brief moment lightened as we scan Irving’s office and zoom with Roth/Streep on a supportive press image of Irving/Cruise with Bush 43.
Despite such moments, the story as a drama quickly becomes a domestic labour of angst that, for two hours, entraps its audience in an extended trek through post-60s U.S cultural history, and with none of the sexy outtakes. The visceral effect of such claustrophobia is an ironic one, since while we remain genuinely concerned about the nighttime fate of Ernest and Arian on the other side of the world, tension is finally relieved in tracking Steep’s post-interview daylight escape into the Washington D.C streets. Look! Taxis, movement, air!
In fact, there was a point - perhaps twenty minutes into the film - when this writer put aside his notes (Acts 1, 2 and 3 were already demarcated but left blank) and closed his eyes. It was a useful test. The film ran perfectly well, in fact better. I wasn’t anchored to endless medium shots in Lacey’s agonized tutorial, I didn’t have to struggle with actor Streep as she dug (brilliantly) deeper into her limited role, nor have to admire Cruise mimic someone else’s smooth sell. The intractability of the rich but stodgy material was confirmed by Redford’s later acknowledgement that it “was a difficult film to edit...difficult thing to work together". This no doubt explained the special thanks to Oscar winner Walter Murch that is tucked way in the end titles. In hindsight, the grand location and honorific manner of the exclusive presentation in Berlin seemed bloated and inappropriate in the case of a film which tries nobly to be smaller, more intense and intimate than the combined studio marketing of Fox, MGM and U.A. would allow (in an effort to please everybody, the film’s protracted end credits - that might compare with those of Ben Hur (1959) - even include ‘Mr Cruise’s Bus Driver’).
Despite post-production tinkering from the estimable Mr. Murch, Lions for Lambs (2007) remains an awkward display of strangled star turns that, despite grand marketing displays across the world are stuck in a constricted Hollywood production that, in another world, would otherwise easily pass as an excellent radio script. It’s advance to a workable film script would require, for example, a condensation of all present elements into what, in the old days, would be the five minute opening credit sequence. Mr Murch would ride supreme on that material. With the set up in place, we would then follow through to the Classic centre - the teaming of West Coast Professor Lacey and East Coast Journalist Roth and follow then their noble attempts to thwart the Presidential ambitions of Irving. But that might reek of John Grisham and the kind of film that Cruise might feel he needs to mature away from. Or, more positively, it would be suggestive of the old United Artists of Arthur Krim and Robert Benjamin which, between 1955 and 1977, won 10 Best Picture Oscars and gave truly great character studies such as us High Noon, 1952: Marty, 1955; One Flew Over the Cookoo’s Nest, 1975; Network, 1976; and Raging Bull, 1980.
As it is, the present film has its eye on both keeping the Cruise/Wagner production budget within effective limits and following through with Mr Redford’s political commitments that value “Democratic values...of debate and dissent...” which, he emphasised at the beginning of his podium appearance, he has always “taken very seriously..." In this respect, at least, the new U.A shares a vital heritage with the old. As such, it could have been written by any one of the current crop of Democratic candidates - establishing its clear anti-war principles, while being pro-troops, and therefore, in its own way, pro-American.
On reflection, and in consideration of Redford’s disillusionment with news media and the current administration (“Anything but what we got now”), his film seems to attempt the kind of direct prolonged engagement with audiences that U.S. television used to champion as its prime remit. Networked points of stopping and thinking.
The uncertain dramatic arc of the present film may have explained the audience’s respectful but limp applause at its falling end. They were expecting a second act. What we are left with is a young man with a decision to make. However, Redford’s spirited appearance on stage, dispelled any audience qualms about the film (in a surreal mirroring of the film itself, he and Cruise were choreographed separately across the evening, never actually appearing together).
Answering questions about the relevance of art in general, it could function, Redford said, “…as a translation of cultural situations…to put before the public issues that can be seem more clearly and more strongly...” Not that Redford is naïve about the power of film itself or art in general to change any status quo. Drawing on his own arc of realization that began with The Candidate (1972), Redford repeated earlier accounts on the failed ambitions of that film: that its message would have an impact, “As you see. No”. Sitting forward towards the audience, Redford cast across his life - from World War 2, through the McCarthy Era, Vietnam, Watergate, Iran Contra to the present, and outlined his main aim in his present film…to make clear the “repeated pattern of the same mind set” at work. Since Sept 12th 2001, for example, “they were playing the fear card very heavily”.
Towards the end of the discussion, Redford tried to lighten the mood by suggesting that the only direct influence that film had was in the area of fashion - his Sundance moustache of 1968 became a celebrated example in what was obviously a patterned closing trope. The savvy deflection towards self-mockery worked. On that engaging note, the bouquets arrived, thanks and plaudits were exchanged, and Mr Redford, renowned filmmaker, Oscar winner, environmentalist, political provocateur, inspiration, and actor edged through the assembling crowd to exit in a side door and back to Utah.
For this writer, Redford has taken a quick opportunity to make an eager righteous film, based on what could be a passable radio script, which would be more suitable for what used to be classic TV drama. And there might be something in this as Redford’s wary Professor Lacey finally closes to his demanding student and to the worldwide audience beyond the camera lens: “Here’s my last bid”, he says slowly, “ So bear with me”.
Hopefully, if reports are right, this won’t be the director’s last bid. A re-make of The Candidate (1972) is on the table, and, with the Presidential Elections of 2008 approaching, a timely opportunity for Redford to stake his claims on those genuine creative risks, which his own Sundance Institute expects of others. Looking to the enormous appreciation of the Berlin audience that applauded him back to Utah, there are many yet who will bear with him in such crucial times.
As for Cruise, the Berlin stage is now set for his coming Valkyrie, and as produced by a Wagner.
There is, however, room for reconsideration on Redford/Lacey’s extended scene with his intractable student. It’s a perspective that side bars the political discussions that attempt to frame the reception of the film, and which takes us back to the 1950s when Robert Redford, himself an 18 year-old, suddenly lost his mother. He quickly distracted into a binge of wasted years, a student of uncertain direction, a young man on the abyss. Crossing East Berlin following the screening of Lions for Lambs (2007) I wondered - and hoped - that the 71-year-old director had finally managed to connect with that young man who - like many today - so nearly lost his way. (lead photo bythe author).