"The Natural" (1984)
One of the most iconic moments in Redford's career (one that is, it goes without saying, littered with iconic moments), is when, at the end of "The Natural," his washed up (and injured) baseball player hits a pennant-winning home run, sending the ball soaring into the overhead lights, a shower of sparks raining down upon him as he circles the bases. Now that is a moment. The rest of Barry Levinson's sprawling baseball drama (based on a 1952 novel by Bernard Malamud) is pretty wonderful too, from its epic scope that sees Redford playing a younger version of his character— who is taken advantage of and left for dead—to his resigned performance as an older, beat up player that nobody wants anymore. The script by Robert Towne offered Redford the chance to play a whole host of emotions and do interesting things with his physicality in a story that stretches decades. In Roy Hobbs, Redford created an indelible character, to the point that they still sell New York Knights caps (after the fictional baseball team in the movie) at J. Crew stores nationwide. While the movie is widely cited as one of the greatest sports movies ever made, too little attention is paid to the nuance and subtlety of Redford's performance. Without it, the movie would fall apart, and probably become awash in stereotypical sports movies clichés. With his performance, it's anchored, grounded, and even with its numerous flights of fancy, feels infinitely more real.
Robert Redford's self-awareness, delivered with a wink and an upturned grin, has always been one of his most powerful tools. In Phil Alden Robinson's deeply entertaining "Sneakers," Redford was, for the first time, able to mine that self-awareness to allow audiences in on the joke that the once-youthful (to the point of almost agelessness) actor was indeed getting old and cranky (he was 56 when the movie was released). The movie also wittily played with the actor's history of political activism, as Redford plays Martin Bishop, who we would now describe as a computer hacker, who used to use his genius for political disruptiveness but now acts as a low-rent thief, hired by banks and corporations to test the stability of their security systems. Idealism has been replaced by capitalism, a struggle that seems to wage inside Redford on an endless loop. Redford heads one of the most impressive casts of his career (including Ben Kingsley, River Phoenix, Sidney Poitier, Dan Aykroyd, David Strathairn, Mary McDonnell, James Earl Jones and Timothy Busfield) in a twisty, enormously gripping tale of suspense and the fragility of male egos, directed with aplomb by Robinson and featuring a jazzily atmospheric score by James Horner. The fact that the movie didn't make any money and remains something of a cultish oddity in the star's career only deepens its inherent wonderfulness. As Martin Bishop, Redford is a man who is confronted with the ghosts of his past and must reconcile who he was and who he has become; he's just as charming as ever, but with his advanced age he was able to have that charm punctuated with bittersweet regret. The results are staggering.
"Spy Game" (2001)
A late-career triumph for the dearly departed Tony Scott, "Spy Game" is an ingeniously structured thriller that has Redford playing an about-to-retire (literally, it's his last day) CIA agent who has to work in secret to free an agent who has been captured (played by Brad Pitt). In the "modern day" timeline (set in 1991), we watch as Redford sneaks around and tries to accomplish things without his superiors noticing, while there's a second plot strand that shows the relationship between Pitt and Redford through the years, from the time when Redford recruited Pitt through their training together and how Pitt wound up being captured. The dynamic of a partnership is something that Redford had built his career upon, and what's fun about "Spy Game" is watching him serve in the same capacity that Newman did so many years ago in "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid." Redford is Pitt's elder and the two play off of each other wonderfully. It would have been very easy to have the roles flipped and let Pitt have more screen time, but this is Redford's show through and through, with him having fun with the idea that he is an outmoded model for the CIA and still getting one past everyone who thinks he's past his prime (easily read as a metaphor for Redford's career). While Redford had spent many years later in his life shepherding his independent film festival to fruition, it's nice to see that he was still capable of big, smart studio fare like "Spy Game."
Of course we have left out a number of wonderful Redford performances throughout the years, of varying quality, in order to whittle down our list, among them: ski movie "Downhill Racer" (directed by Michael Ritchie), "The Way We Were" with Barbara Streisand, war movie "A Bridge Too Far," and Sydney Pollack's Oscar-winning romantic drama dynamo "Out of Africa" (less successful was their team-up for "Havana"). We also, it goes without saying, cannot wait to see Redford as the head of S.H.I.E.L.D. in next spring's "Captain America: The Winter Soldier." Even at nearly 80, Redford's choices still have us jazzed. How many actors can you say that about?