Because it is far too easy in life to end up embodying something other than what we say we believe in, we should be grateful to those who hold us accountable to our stated ideals. Dublin-based novelist, filmmaker, and biographer Michael Feeney Callan proposes that for Americans, the movie star Robert Redford is one such person. Skeptics will be surprised at how persuasive Callan’s case is.
Of course, we have to get past the glamour first. Redford broke through as the vision of blond handsomeness in such massively popular films as Barefoot in the Park (1967), Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), and The Sting (1973). It’s a stretch to call these films social commentary, but in Robert Redford: The Biography, Callan shows how gladly the actor turned to more provocative projects. From the start, Redford—who was a painter before he was an actor—saw himself not simply as an entertainer, but also as an artist. And as his career progressed, he consistently proved to be an artist who was politically engaged.
Callan looks closely at two early works that signal this commitment. Originally envisioned as parts of a trilogy, Downhill Racer (1969) and The Candidate (1972) examine the American obsession with success in the worlds of sports and politics. (A third film, about business, was never made.) Each addresses the theme of the Pyrrhic victory, showing how easily a noble striving can succumb to the American worship of success for its own sake. In Downhill Racer, the protagonist, skier David Chappellet, is—in Redford’s words—“an asshole,” a cocky, aloof, and hypercompetitive athlete whose obsession with winning trumps all norms of civility. “I’d been sold on the wondrous jock since childhood,” Callan quotes Redford saying, “but in my lifetime it changed.” In Redford’s view, the emerging sports ethic in the 1960s and ’70s taught that “winning was everything, [while] bad behavior was now excused.”
The Candidate approaches our obsession with winning from another angle, chronicling what happens when an idealistic young lawyer is offered a platform for his views in an ostensibly unwinnable Senate campaign. As the race becomes surprisingly close, the candidate’s freedom to speak his mind dissipates, with banal slogans (“For a Better Way, Bill McKay”) replacing his earlier pleas on behalf of the marginalized. When McKay, in a late pang of conscience, pledges himself anew to the concerns that had motivated him in the first place—poverty, race relations, the environment—we are left to wonder if he still believes his own words. Redford’s question to the American public is the same one that the new senator-elect McKay poses to his campaign manager at the end: “What do we do now?” What now, asks Redford, given the mess we’ve made for ourselves?
At the heart of Redford’s work, Callan argues, lies the insistent courting of a better America. His films frequently reveal how moral ambivalence on the personal level undermines our institutions as well. Such diverse works as The Way We Were (1973), All the President’s Men (1976), Brubaker (1980), The Natural (1984), and Quiz Show (1996) focus on “the gray area, where the duality of human nature shows through.” If it is easy to be cynical about government and big business (including the sports and entertainment industries), Redford warns against overlooking our own culpability. Whether the tormented campaign workers in All the President’s Men, the tempted ballplayer in The Natural, or the misguided professor’s son in Quiz Show (which he directed), the protagonists in his films reveal that organizational corruption lies just a step away from the choices made by even likable characters.
Redford has dedicated himself to making movies that get us to examine our national values. Delving into the sources of this dedication, Callan points to the mixed social environment of the actor’s early years, in Sawtelle, California. There Redford played with working-class Mexican and black neighbors while attending the “swanky” Brentwood Grammar. It was a childhood lived, Redford recalls, with “one foot in high society and one on the street.” As a young artist he was taken with Jack Kerouac’s celebration of the many voices that make up a collective American idiom. “I had a very broad sense of America, or the parallel Americas,” Redford recalls, “and I knew I wanted to study the differences.” As a filmmaker he would make room for excluded voices in such films as Jeremiah Johnson (1972) and The Milagro Beanfield War (1986), which showcase American Indian and Hispanic experience, respectively. The same ideal of broad participation lies behind the Sundance Institute and Film Festival—a laboratory, training ground, and launching pad for independent filmmakers through which Redford has helped open the film world (and the national conversation) to new ideas and voices.
But nowhere has Redford’s engagement been more visible than in the cause of conservation and environmental awareness. Again Callan finds roots in the actor’s California boyhood. An early visit to Yosemite was “a real awakening,” helping fire a love of the Western landscape that would later prompt Redford to buy the Utah property for Sundance, a portion of which he set aside as a nature reserve. More direct political engagement followed. When Cal Edison tried to put a coal-burning plant in Utah’s Kaiparowits Plateau, Redford called on congressmen and funded the opposition with his own money; in the end, his enlistment of Dan Rather to run an exposé on 60 Minutes helped keep the plant from being built.
Filmmaking, however, remains Robert Redford’s first love and the primary outlet for his idealism. Indeed one might argue that his greatest contribution to environmentalism was to personally bankroll and direct A River Runs Through It (1992), a film that shows not just how beautiful the land is, but how much it offers to those who live attentively and gratefully within it. At no point, however, did he allow the film to devolve into tendentious environmentalism. Instead he respected the integrity of the story (about brotherly love in the literal and figurative sense) and gave us three-dimensional characters, letting concern for the environment remain in the background.
Redford’s focus on the recognizably personal—on individual conscience rather than planks in a political platform—is what wins him fans even among those who do not share his liberal-moderate Democratic leanings. According to Bob Woodward, whom Redford portrayed in All the President’s Men, conscience is the underlying concern in the bulk of Redford’s work. Indeed, conscience strikes me as the essential link between his more and his less overtly political films. Ordinary People (1980), for which Redford won the Oscar for Best Director, is in no obvious way a political film, yet it clearly addresses moral concerns never far removed from our social and political life. One might discern, in the prospect of a mother trying to keep up the appearance of happy prosperous family life even as things are coming apart, a parable of American life. Americans embraced this film because they could recognize themselves in it.
Callan’s authorized biography, a project of sixteen years, draws on Redford’s own papers and hundreds of hours of interviews to give us the first comprehensive account of Redford’s life and work. Like its subject, it offers serious content in an attractive package. The book’s shortcomings are minor ones. The succession of film summaries feels repetitive at times, and Callan might have distinguished more carefully between Redford’s greater and lesser works. He also might have been less hasty in examining Redford’s flaws. The greatest one acknowledged here—though only obliquely—is that Redford’s absorption in his work has caused certain of his relationships to suffer.
But if Callan proves exceptionally generous toward his subject, such generosity mirrors Redford’s own comments on his many collaborators over the years. The lack of gossip and one-upmanship is refreshing. Just one more instance, perhaps, of Redford trying to win us over to the good cause.