Culture / Entertainment

Robert Redford’s Big Sundance Surprise Stuns Reporters, Kicks Off a Film Fest of Controversial, Powerful Docus

An 82-Year-Old Legend and His Morphing Movie Wonderland

BY // 01.25.19

PARK CITY, Utah — The 34th annual Sundance Film Festival opened Thursday in this affluent ski town with its traditional press conference led by the festival’s founder Robert Redford and his programming team. This year it was different as Redford took the stage by himself to announce that he was taking a step back from being the face of the festival.

“Having done this for, god, 34 years since the festival started, I think we are at a point where I can move on to a different place,” Redford said. Dressed in his trademark jeans and a leather jacket, the legendary actor added, “I’ve been spending a lot of time introducing things but I don’t think that the festival needs a lot of introduction anymore.”

With that he introduced Sundance Institute executive director Keri Putnam, who told him he could leave. Although at 82 years his desire to step back is understandable, it happened so quickly and awkwardly that it left many of the reporters shaking their heads.

After Redford exited, Sundance programmers hardly mentioned him as they talked about the theme of this year’s festival “Risk Independence,” new venues, new ways of telling stories, and everything but Redford’s departure.

Unlike previous years, when reporters asked wide-ranging questions about the festival and its offerings, the only questions taken were those that had been previously submitted in writing. For those of us who have covered the festival for many years and look forward to Redford’s offerings of wisdom and perspective in an extemporaneous question-and-answer format, it was disappointing to see this opening day tradition handled with scripted military precision but no heart.

Earlier this year, Redford announced his retirement from acting after starring in the critically acclaimed The Old Man and the Gun.

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More Serious Movie Magic

Despite Redford’s exit, this year’s festival, which runs through February 3, offers some intriguing movie choices that are sure to generate critical acclaim, controversy, and distribution deals. Two of the festival’s three opening night films, which typically showcase some of the festival’s meatiest offerings (think Whiplash, Twenty Feet From Stardom), featured two documentaries with Houston ties.

The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley by award winning documentary film director Alex Gibney, fleshes out the story of the St. John’s High School graduate Elizabeth Holmes, who started the Silicon Valley company Theranos, which went from being valued at $9 billion to zero dollars, and left Holmes charged with fraud and conspiracy.

Apollo 11 features previously unseen footage from Houston’s NASA archives, vividly chronicling how America put a man on the moon while the whole world watched. But more than a moonshot, the film shows America in a more innocent era when for a period of time we came together to show that we were a country that believed if we could dream it we could do it.

The press conference closed with Sundance reminding us that who it showcases is as important as what it showcases, and that a majority of the filmmakers being presented this year, and the reporters it credentialed to cover them, are women and minorities.

Other documentaries showcase sex therapist Dr. Ruth, author Toni Morrison, journalist Mike Wallace, musician David Crosby, Texas political columnist Molly Ivins, political strategist Steve Bannon, the disgraced Harvey Weinstein, and Michael Jackson as told through two boys who are now in the middle thirties who say they were sexually abused by Jackson.

Despite being the pre-eminent showcase for American independent film, the Sundance Film Festival has always attracted movie stars. This year is no exception. Emma Thompson, Jake Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, Blythe Danner, Ethan Hawke, Michelle Williams and Julianne Moore are a few of the many stars who will be making an appearance in Sundance dramas.

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