The Theory of Chaos

Monday, December 24, 2007

MOVIE REVIEW - Lions for Lambs

Full review behind the jump

Lions for Lambs

: Robert Redford
: Matthew Michael Carnahan
: Robert Redford, Matthew Michael Carnahan, Tracy Falco, Andrew Hauptman
: Robert Redford, Meryl Streep, Tom Cruise, Michael Peña, Derek Luke, Andrew Garfield, Peter Berg, Kevin Dunn

Lions for Lambs
plays like the Hollywood equivalent of having something read into the Congressional Record. Everything it says is worth saying, and it is taking up a debate that too many feared to really engage for too long. It has dynamic actors doing the reading with conviction and skill. But for all the effort put into tarring Hollywood as some rich island of loony radicalism, its lateness to this particular party is staggeringly self-evident, even more so because it has so little to add except “Yes, we agree.” It’s not that this movie is political that damns it; it’s that it is perfunctory.

Clearly producer/director/star Robert Redford, helming his first feature in seven years, is motivated by an urgent desire to join the dialogue. More power to him, I say. But this is a work of such jaw-dropping pedanticism, it’s no wonder that its go-to visual composition is a man hectoring us from across a desk. As a lecture, it is composed with undeniable intelligence. As cinema, it is a shocking failure.

The story ties together three vignettes that are unfolding at relatively the same time. In Los Angeles, Professor Stephen Malley (Redford), a grizzled political science teacher, calls in one of his students, a bright young man named Todd Hayes (Andrew Garfield). Todd is the underachieving portrait of “these kids today”, bright and cynical, oversaturated with information but lacking the interest to prioritize it or put it to any use, because he is convinced the system is so rigged that no good can come of it. But because movie professors always have that unerring radar for That Kid Who’s Special Underneath it All, Malley aims to inject a little fight in Todd through challenging debate.

On the other coast, in Washington D.C., veteran political reporter Janine Roth (Meryl Streep) is called in for an exclusive private interview with Republican Senator Jasper Irving (Tom Cruise). Irving, a charismatic rising star of his party, is unveiling a new military strategy for Afghanistan which he claims, with mesmerizing self-assurance, will finally turn the tide that failed to turn after all of our other new strategies. And part of that strategy will involve the risky deployment of a platoon of Army Rangers, two of whom are Ernest Rodriguez (Michael Peña) and Arian Finch (Derek Luke), the last students Professor Malley thought had potential.

Rodriguez and Finch, naturally, end up in a terrible bind on the battlefield, and stand, bold-faced and underlined three or four times, as the human faces that pay for these pretty arguments we have in offices so far away. Back when they were his students, and the attacks of September 11th happened, Malley felt in his gut that there was a more urgent use for bright young minds like this than cannon fodder. And yet it must be said that, if he wants people to step up and serve a cause, at least they found a way to do that.

I don’t mind watching any of these stars. Redford has his easy confidence, Cruise mixes up an effective blend of steeliness and desperate self-delusion, and Meryl Streep, as always, provides an excellence that is an endless joy to behold. She has created her character to such a dazzlingly-minute degree of detail that, when admiring her in a late confrontation with her editor (Kevin Dunn) over the need for the media to challenge the government line more forcefully, you damn near forget how gallingly simple-minded the scene actually is.

But what about those soldiers this movie purports to have so much compassion for? One is played by Michael Peña (Crash, World Trade Center, Shooter), and I think Hollywood really ought to do the right thing by him and make a movie star out of him already. He has a core decency that all but glows into the camera, and I like it more and more every time I glimpse it. He and his friend played by Derek Luke are so flawlessly earnest and loyal and virtuous – and so conspicuously ethnic compared to the white people deciding their fate from a safe distance. That they have such an absolute lack of control over their grim destiny all but cancels them out of the movie’s dramatic equation; which is a tragedy in real life, but on screen is merely wasted viewing time.

What Lions for Lambs does capably depict is just how far debate in this country has degraded. This is a war being fought with the same clichés you hear shouted by the callers on sports talk radio shows. “Take the fight to ‘em!”, “Show them we mean business!” – as if our Armed Forces have previously neglected to do any of these things.

This is the mindset that thinks any armchair enthusiast can strategize, the only thing really needed to win is sufficient will and everyone’s absolute loyalty. This is the mindset that defines “toughness” as the quality of ignoring reality until it turns in your favor, then taking credit for it while disregarding the cost of your intractability. Irving’s fervor is a capable demonstration of the freezing power of the black-and-white world view – the past must be disregarded, because all that matters is that he sincerely believes this time, if he beats his head into that brick wall very hard, it will realize he’s serious and break. And anyone who criticizes his plan must, by extension, not want us to win. Watch how in spite of her intellect it makes Streep’s reporter wither, and struggle to remind herself that doubt, reflection, and the lessons of history are not weaknesses. The most chilling buzz-phrase from his lips is the one that goes “We stay until we win. We do whatever it takes.”, which calls to mind what Professor Malley says, about how there are toys in our arsenal that a certain category of people have been agitating to use again ever since the big splash they made in 1945.

Again, all things that desperately need saying, and Cruise gives one of his better recent performances in the process of saying it. But as the long and winding conversations of Lions for Lambs unfold, a moment is going to arrive where you suddenly say to yourself – “This is it. This is all this movie intends to do.” You never want to feel that.


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