Friday, November 09, 2007

"Lions for Lambs" -- * * 1/2

It’s a shame that Hollywood has squandered the potential for making superb topical films about the political climate of our country in the last six years, because there was so much to work with. They haven’t failed spectacularly, but as of yet (we still have a few to go), none have been very powerful or effective. Robert Redford’s “Lions for Lambs,” sadly, doesn’t break the trend, but it comes significantly closer than “In the Valley of Elah” and is the most overly political of the lot. Opening with a voiceover about soldiers killed in Iraq and lingering shots of GOP. public opinion polls, there’s no question where the film’s viewpoint lies, but it’s significantly more even-handed than I expected going in.

Basically a filmed play, “Lions” weaves together three similarly-themed storylines: (1) an ambitious Republican senator, Jasper Irving (Tom Cruise) doing his part “to keep the press better informed” by offering an exclusive interview with liberal veteran newswoman Janine Roth (Meryl Streep) about his new strategy in fighting the way on terror, (2) a liberal, grizzled college professor (Robert Redford) lecturing an apathetic fratboy (Andrew Garfield) in his office about two former students of his (Michael Pena and Derek Luke), and (3) those very students, now enlisted in the Army, as they partake in Irving’s new strategy in Afghanistan and find themselves royally fucked and embedded in the snow-covered ground. The first two stories are each basically just two people exchanging words back and forth in offices (in real time), with the latter blatantly pandering to audiences who might be bored by too much talking.

It’s this third storyline that nearly sinks the movie altogether, and prompted me to slink in my seat each time it was cut back to. It’s obviously wedged in to provide some sort of “action”, is poorly written, boring, repetitive (each time we cut back to them, it’s basically the same scene over and over), and ultimately, cringe-inducingly sentimental and “patriotic,” while supposedly depicting the human cost of the war.

Thankfully, the other two storylines are significantly more engrossing. The best, and most gripping, segment of the film, by far, is the Cruise/Streep material. Even though their scenes are very terse, back-and-forth dialogue scenes with little opportunity for “acting,” Cruise is perfectly cast as the slick, answer-ready-for-everything senator, and Streep is particularly wonderful in a role that’s probably fairly close to who she is in reality. Rather than preaching a liberal diatribe and painting Irving as staunchly evil and/or manipulative, this is rather, a fairly intelligent debate from both sides of the ‘war on terror’ argument, and is consistently compelling. While Janine is clearly who the filmmakers side with (when Irving asks, “When will you people stop asking the same questions?” she matter-of-factly responds, “When we get the answer.”), the arguments Irving makes are fairly cogent, intelligent and reasonably persuasive, and he sounds scarily like the Republican pundits who regularly speechify on Fox News. It’s also worth noting that the film avoids blanket Bush-bashing; we get a fleeting mention of “the president,” but the name is never uttered.

Like the DC-set segment, Redford’s storyline—set at “A California University”—has compelling dialogue (courtesy of “The Kingdom” scribe Matthew Michael Carnahan), even if the student’s situation seems fairly tenuous to the flashbacks Redford recalls. It’s this segment that most emphatically underlines the film’s themes about getting engaged, and it’s fairly effective. The title is a reference to a quote cited by Redford: “Nowhere else have I seen such lions led by such lambs.”

That’s really what the film’s about, and that’s what so refreshing about the best parts of it. Rather than a self-righteous, obvious message of “bring the troops home” (not really a point people need a film to bring to their attention), it’s chiefly a criticism of apathy, and a cautionary tale about us, the American people, not buying Iran like we bought Iraq. While there’s no question where Redford and Carnahan’s opinions lie, the film is as much a criticism of liberals who went along to the drum-up to Iraq as it is of the conservative politicians who instigated it. As Redford’s character says, “the problem isn’t with those in charge, they’re irredeemable. The problem is with us, who do nothing.” When it’s cooking, “Lions for Lambs” raises questions and ideas like this thoughtfully, and unlike “Elah’s” rah-rah “troops good, war bad” simplicity, you actually need to know shit to keep up with what’s going on here and follow the dialogue.

Though cast with A-listers to make John Q. American pay attention, "Lions for Lambs" will likely bore most audiences with its verbose nature and it will probably be crushed by “Fred Claus” this weekend. Still, for most of its running time, the film's a more interesting, thoughtful (though painfully earnest) assessment of our current national situation than less adventurous filmmakers seem willing to explore; it’s just questionable whether you want to spend your money on only about an hour’s worth of worthwhile stuff. While understandable that, at 88 minutes, “Lions” couldn’t afford to lose an entire storyline, it’s unfortunate, because at 65 minutes (missing the soldier content), this could have been a very good movie.

OSCAR POTENTIAL: Probably none, but potentially Best Original Screenplay


Anonymous Jules said...

For all your attempts, mostly hits, at strikingly clever observations, I sense an undercurrent, perhaps even envy, of fear at the good depiction these 2 soldiers with their idealistic ideas were given.

There is no way to simply attempt to portray the human loss side of these wars without anything even close to what was shown for these 2.

I think is weak that you wallow in happiness like a pig in shit when the theme keeps pounding on otherwise important questions and answers like those fenced between M. Streep and T. Cruise are center stage, but cringe and critizice when braver souls than yours get their due.

You are 22, according to your profile, and it will take you a while to learn the simple truth that you really don't know shit, but it should not take you too long to realize this.

That the portrayal of those 2 soldiers was also an attempt at rescuing the minds of inner city, well-intentioned young Americans, who need to be shown a little closer the sort of cowards that, along with their egotistical agendas, will eagerly put them in harm's way to satisfy themselves, and the ultimate goals of their agendas.

That not having every opportunity should not automatically qualify them out of a golden life package, instead of the Oscam Meyer package they get by default now.


9:25 PM  
Blogger Rob said...

Just to be clear, I have no issue with the portrayal of the soldiers as idealistic and patriotic. Believe it or not, I actually have no issue with idealism or patriotism, but even if I did, I can wholly appreciate depictions of beliefs other than mine, if they're well-done, entertaining, compelling or any other sort of stimulating.

My issue with the soldier storyline is not the portrayal of the characters, the themes, or even the events-- but rather the static inaction, the stilted dialogue and the hamhanded "going-down-in-a-Butch/Sundance-blaze of-glory" that resolves it.

According to you, I "don't know shit" and am cringing and criticizing because "braver souls than mine are getting their due." Rather, I cringe and criticize at the shortcomings of the filmmaking, blatant speechifying, and exaggerated, unrealistic portrayals of the "truth."

You may think that because I'm 22, I don't know shit, but I certainly know more than those twice or thrice my age who are incapable of wading into morally gray areas, or praising something because of it's "message," even when it's delivery is warped and equipped with a faulty, ideological sense of logic.

10:27 PM  

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