It’s a common refrain for movie stars to say they wished the media focused more on their films, but devotees of Robert Redford could be forgiven for wishing the legendary actor-director would make fewer films focused on the media.
Redford, 79, might be best known for his turns alongside Paul Newman in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting but he has frequently played a print or TV journalist on screen, and directed examinations of media ethics in films such as Quiz Show and Lions for Lambs.
We meet in a New York hotel to discuss his latest celluloid reporting assignment, Truth, in which he portrays the fall from grace of iconic American TV news anchor Dan Rather.
“You’ve obviously gathered the opinion that’s of interest to me,” he says dryly when I ask him about the media. “Truth is about journalism’s difficulty with an administration, getting to the truth about something and the effort to stop it when the opposition makes it so difficult.
"That theme has been interesting to me for a lot of films, whether it’s All the President’s Men or Lions for Lambs or The Candidate.”
Redford’s most celebrated journalistic outing was as Bob Woodward uncovering the Watergate scandal for the Washington Post alongside Dustin Hoffman’s Carl Bernstein in All the President’s Men four decades ago.
While that film was a fine advocate for the trade, encouraging a generation of journalists that dogged reporting could remove a president, Truth depicts journalism at its lowest ebb, chronicling the fall-out from a high-profile media story going wrong.
Together with his producer Mary Mapes (played by Cate Blanchett), Rather is brought down by his botched report on former president George W Bush’s military record broadcast on CBS’s TV news magazine show 60 Minutes II in the run-up to the 2004 US Presidential election.
“Woodward and Bernstein were two upstarts working on a story that the powers that be wanted to squash,” he says. “But they had the support of their editors and the newspaper. Dan and Mary did not have the support of their bosses. Their bosses were more loyal to the administration that they were doing a story on.”
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Redford conveys an aura of relaxed earnestness yet, when it comes to the particulars of Truth, he is reluctant to get drawn into specifics. The film is a lively, intelligent look at journalism and the power dynamic – better than Spotlight if you ask me – but its reception in the US was hampered by questions over its thesis, that CBS acted the way it did because top brass caved into pressure from the Republican administration being investigated by Rather and Mapes.
Isn’t it more pertinent that the documents purporting to show President Bush failed to fulfil his obligations in the Texas National Guard were most likely forgeries reproduced on modern-day Microsoft Word? “I think that’s their argument to make,” Redford says. “It’s not mine. I don’t know the facts and it’s been so long ago.
“All I know is some small glitch which may have been true – there might have been a technicality that they missed or got wrong – got blown into such a big thing. The story they were trying to get involved a very important person in a very important leadership position. They wanted to uncover what the deal was and this small glitch was used by the administration to squash it.”
CBS didn’t help matters by banning any advertising of Truth on its network. “I don’t expect CBS to send flowers and the controversy will come,” Redford notes. “But I’m prepared to defend what the film is trying to talk about: the role of journalism against political opposition.”
Redford had met Rather before when he appeared on 60 Minutes in 1976 to protest against the proposed building of power plants in Utah that would destroy the state’s public wild lands.
“I tried to raise my small voice,” he recalls, “but it never got anywhere. In desperation I called 60 Minutes… it was a very successful show that reached a wider audience. People sent in money to stop it, the big energy companies pulled out and it never happened.”
He met Rather once in the run-up to Truth. “I had a pretty good idea of how I wanted to portray him but I didn’t know how he felt about it. So I said: ‘Is there anything you want to tell me?’ He said: ‘Bob, the whole thing was about loyalty.’”
Redford takes research seriously. He recalls being unimpressed when he found out Tom Cruise, who was playing a hawkish Republican senator in the 2007 drama Lions for Lambs that Redford also starred in and directed, had contacted neo-conservative historian Robert Kagan for guidance. “I said: ‘Are you kidding? Do you know what he is?’ He had a lot of stuff out there but I said: ‘Do you know who is giving you this stuff?’ That was a whole other story.”
One of Hollywood’s longest-standing liberals, Redford remains saddened that the Bush administration never expressed remorse for taking America to war with Iraq. “They don’t answer,” he says.
“What puzzles me is that the person who is responsible for taking us in that direction has never been held accountable and why that person is given a platform to speak is beyond me. That person should have been investigated and maybe punished for what he did.” Does he mean George W Bush? “Dick Cheney. Bush was an adviser but that’s another matter.”
At the height of his career in the 1960s and the 1970s, Redford was conflicted between his political convictions, being taken seriously for his acting, and the perception of him as a sex symbol and a style icon fuelled by his roles in The Way We Were and The Great Gatsby.
Did this annoy him? “How could you not like it?” he replies. “I liked it a lot. I wasn’t expecting it and it just happened around a couple of films. At first I was very flattered, I thought: ‘Gee, this really feels good.’ Then I got nervous about what it would do to my life if I really went into it.”
He sought solace in solitude: “That’s why I bought the land in Utah. It was a retreat where I would go away so I could have time with nature and raise my family and not ever get tied into that. But it hasn’t been easy.”
Redford has been married twice, has four children, and lives in Sundance, Utah, with second wife, artist Sibylle Szaggars.
Redford says his life boils down to art and nature. He loves his Sundance Film Festival but sounds even prouder that the area preserves 6,000 acres of land. As he approaches his ninth decade, winding down is not an option: “I don’t think retirement is for me. I enjoy being active and exploring new territory. I think if I stopped, something would dry up.”
His fears on the state of the planet are increasing (“I worry about what is going to be left if we don’t stop and develop for our survival and also preserve for our survival”).
He is also becoming increasingly concerned about the media. “The role of corporations’ relationship to politics and politics relationship to journalism and journalism’s relationship to the public – that’s all changing,” he says. “I’m fascinated by that but I find it a little depressing.”
‘Truth’ is released on 4 March
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