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War Retort

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With the administration and news media beating the drums for another military offensive, you, audience member, sit there and do nothing. If the idea of more war reporting by Wolf Blitzer and a cavalcade of preening ex-generals can't scare you into evasive action, perhaps the thought of another Hollywood morality lesson will.

In that, "Lions for Lambs" exists in a crowded field. This fall has produced at least five topical films related to our wars in the East, including "Rendition," "The Kingdom," and the Tommy Jones vehicle, "In the Valley of Elah" -- movies that television news calls "thought-provoking."

To its credit, "Lions for Lambs" has the least desire to wring entertainment value out of the material. It wants to proselytize, which is not to its credit. The intention is admirable, but also frustrating, because the result is a series of straw-man arguments and preaching, kind of like a cinematic tent-revival meeting whose holy spirit would be The Nation. As an idea, it's noble; as a movie, it's not really a movie, but a collection of polemics.

At least it's brief. The one neat trick "Lions for Lambs" pulls off is connecting several events taking place at the same time, in real time, in about 88 minutes. Since the average movie is 90 minutes, you'll appreciate the two extra allowed to orient yourself to the fact you didn't just see a seriously long preview, but an actual narrative.

At an unnamed California university, a poly-sci professor (Robert Redford) has an office meeting with a gifted but uninterested student (Andrew Garfield). In Washington, D.C., a reporter (Streep) interviews an up-and-coming senator (Tom Cruise). Somewhere in the Afghan mountains, a couple of noble American soldiers (Derek Luke and Michael Pe¤a), former students of the prof, attempt to implement the senator's new strategy. In theaters everywhere, people are wondering what Cruise was thinking.

The new head of United Artists, Cruise took a big chance with such a talky vehicle as the company's first release under his stewardship. It's difficult to think of anything he's done that's been a major flop, but it would still be surprising to see such a risky move pay off. If nothing else, we might have expected more battle scenes. Really, we might have expected a crowd-pleaser like "Mission: Impossible," but with more "Bourne Identity" intelligence for a fall release. That's the way you expect the Hollywood establishment to operate, and movies such as "Lions for Lambs" make you regret faulting them for it.

Scribe Matthew Michael Carnahan wrote "Lions" after what he says was a moment of apathy he experienced in the face of a disturbing Iraq War report on television, and his script doesn't hide its agenda. Eschewing all subtlety in favor of its message, it wants to reach all those people who, like Carnahan, are against our wars but do nothing about it. Redford, directing himself as a venerable professor trying to reach a bright student who's also given up, goes so far as to put his character in "That's what they want us to think!" mode. The message might be relevant, but the method, obvious and literal, is sure to miss the mark. People who agree likely won't feel they're hearing anything new, and people who don't aren't likely to be swayed by such a direct argument.

Redford and Carnahan might argue that they're preaching to the choir on purpose -- that their goal isn't simply to inform, but to get their congregation's butts off the pews. That may be, but their sermon isn't always logically sound. The central conceit plays out as a battle between ideologies, which you could sum up as "Leaders know best" versus "It's up to us." Both undermine the thread that concerns the two soldiers, Redford's former students, who've had nearly two presidential terms to think of a better way to fight the system. Similarly, you can't say we are all responsible while excluding senators and soldiers.

The movie tries to alleviate this criticism by explaining its title, which comes from a German poem about British soldiers during World War I. Never, it observes, have such lions been led by such lambs. Would Carnahan and Redford have us believe this about our soldiers? And what about our mercenaries from Blackwater? After nearly eight years of obvious misrepresentations, dutifully recounted by Mark Danner in a recent issue of The New York Review of Books, such a notion applied to Afghanistan and Iraq is difficult to swallow. Redford and Carnahan's film puffs itself up for a political roar, but its wistful protests sound more like bleating. (R) 88 min. S



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