Thursday, September 15, 2011

Lions for Lambs

This week, we're re-publishing some reviews of the films from the post 9-11 environment.

"Never engage the enemy for too long, or he will adapt to your tactics"

There are three arenas in play, and as the film begins the protagonists are checking their ledgers and statistics: Lt. Col. Falco (Peter Berg) is checking his strategy briefings; Senator Jasper Irving (Tom Cruise) is looking at dropping poll numbers; Professor Steven Malley (Robert Redford) is checking the quarter's attendance; Reporter Janine Roth (Meryl Streep) is looking at her unopened note-book--an empty slate. Thus begins Lions for Lambs* a polemic about the current Middle-East War, the entities that package and sell it, and the public that may not like it, but won't do anything to oppose it. All the stories intersect a bit and the movie takes place over a few hours. The script is by Matthew Michael Carnehan, who also wrote The Kingdom Its director, Peter Berg, who plays Falco here, said that film was "98% Action, 2% Message." Here, that ratio is reversed, and, man, is it tedious.

 First off, there is a heavy veneer of liberal self-satisfaction (though not as much as when conservatives put the hammer down). The senator is a Republican tyro, trying to bolster his party's (and his) poll numbers by setting up a new front in Afghanistan (Senator's can do that? I mean besides Charlie Wilson?) He's given Roth a solid hour (this is supposedly a big deal) to argue his case that this attack (no, really, this one!) will win the war in Afghanistan, the war on terror, the hearts and minds of Afghans (he really says this) and presumably bring the troops back home for Christmas (he doesn't say this, but he might as well have). Cruise was bio-engineered for this role (and you just know this is the part Redford would have taken during his career in the cynical 1960's), an opportunistic-photo-op-ready politico, with flags on the desk, pants-press in the office, and flashing Chiclets in his mouth, while Meryl Streep is all shambling messiness, trying to counter the arguments (is that her job?) that Cruise spins on the head of a pin. Their section is the sort of "greased-pig" argument and obfuscation bull-session that keeps me from watching the "pundit" shows--nothing's less fun or informative than watching two used-policy salesmen, hectoring each other trying to get their feet stuck in the open door of your mind. Finally it gets down to my favorite argument when rats-on-their-hind-legs are cornered--The Multiple Choice Bottom-Liner: "Do you want to win the War on Terror: Yes or No?". ("Well, I don't know, Senator, when did you stop beating your wife?") At one point Streep asks, "When does the new offensive start?" Cruise looks at his (supposed) Rolex. "Ten minutes ago." So much for pre-selling.

And in that ten minutes, the mission is already SNAFU'd, when two grunts are bounced out of a helicopter taking heavy fire, turning the offensive thrust into a rescue mission. Not a good start to winning those hearts and minds.
And by a curious coincidence--or a heavy-handed ploy by the screenwriter--those very two soldiers were both students in Professor Malley's political science class, who, in a school project capped their volunteerism argument by enlisting. Now, Malley uses them to guilt a slacker-student who can't be bothered coming to class because he's "busy with stuff," into considering a more activist stance before the bigger challenges of jobs, mortgages, ball-games, and watching "American Idol" zombies away any chance of him doing any critical thinking for the rest of his life. That's a valid argument to make, whichever side of the aisle you take bribes on. But instead of making the arguments, Malley turns them into three-corner shots that kind of dance around the problem, rather than saying something, oh, like "I would suggest you start coming to class or I will flunk your lazy frat-ass: your call."

The trouble here is that the issues are so immediate that the arguments the film is making were too late four years ago. So, it's a bit like soft-ball preaching to the choir. The arguments are sound, but they have very little relevance to extricating us from the tar-pit of this conflict, and, yes, people are getting chewed up by it, but that's the business of war, and why you try to avoid it, rather than rush in like a damned fool. It's great to be able to say all this with 20-20 hind-smugness, but it's essentially useless. Now tell us something we don't know, and how we can avoid it the next time. "Is he failing you?" a fellow frat asks the student about his meeting. The movie certainly is.

"Lions for Lambs" is a cable-flick.

* The title derives from a phrase from World War I, but, the exact nature of the quote is subject to debate, and its history, like the film, is a bit muddled.


Candice Frederick said...

darn, i really like this movie.

Yojimbo_5 said...

From an acting stand-point, I can't fault it. Streep is fine, Cruise is good, Redford's directing (thank you), but Redford, usually displaying his very good taste, did nothing to make the movie feel less static, and is in full polemic mode. This movie needs to be less about the the malaise of the status quo and a bit more passionate. For a movie about lost oppotunities, it ends up being one (in my very humbled opinion). I wanted to like it. But, I'm glad you did...and I'd love to hear your opinion why you do.