Saturday, March 28, 2009

REVIEW: Lions for Lambs

This movie DEFINITELY lives up to the top half of the box.

If Driven left you thirsty for discourse on weighty issues, I have just the movie for you. In fact, if Driven left your blood racing, ten minutes of this movie will get your blood stuck in DC traffic.

Sorry, but this is apparently the lion.

Lions for Lambs is a 2007 “drama” that “explores” the “controversy” over the Iraq/Afghanistan “war“ (actually, I‘m not sure why that last part is in quotes). Although nominally about Afghanistan, the less controversial of the two wars, the film is really about every damn thing that people have ever argued about regarding both wars, with a general focus on the argument that war in the Middle East is unwinnable, and the United States should pull its troops out, rather than suffer more casualties. The film had rather unfortunate timing. It was released several months after an increase in military forces, “The Surge” as it’s commonly known, wound up severely reducing the level of violence in Iraq. Now, it can be reasonably argued whether Iraq will ultimately turn out what we hope it to be, whether the deaths of many thousands of American troops was worth making Iraq democratic, and whether the war in Afghanistan can be turned around the same way Iraq was. But there was little doubt in November of 2007, and even less now, that yes, an aggressive military strategy can secure a country in the Middle East. Although Lions for Lambs arrived a bit too late to make a coherent argument in the face of reality, it did reflect a lot of criticism of the war abroad that persisted for a long time.

"You know, Meryl, you're right, it's a lot easier to relax on the set when you're making a movie you know nobody without a bad movie blog is ever going to see."

The movie opens with three people each looking worriedly at three different reports: Tom Cruise looking at a report on the President’s declining popularity (something he apparently hadn’t been aware of, because it was such an underreported story), a military commander looking at a report on increasing military casualties, and Robert Redford looking at a student’s declining attendance record. It’s a powerful way to start the movie; can the rest of the film possibly live up to the drama of actors silently examining line graphs? Not quite, but it comes close. From here on out, the movie takes place in quasi-real time, and because it also involves international terrorism and political intrigue, you might think this will be something like 24.

"Wait, this movie's the Independence Day sequel, right? Lions for Lambs is just a secret filming title, right?"


Huh-huh. He's giving Iran the finger.

Story A takes place in Washington, DC, where Republican Senator Jasper Irving (Tom Cruise) has called liberal reporter Janine Roth (Meryl Streep) in for a private meeting. Jasper Irving? Yes, that’s the Republican senator. You’ll be relieved to know that Tom Cruise doesn’t pull a “Kevin Costner in Thirteen Days” and doesn’t attempt a wacky accent. But it’s Tom Cruise, so you know he’s going to be a smooth-talking hotshot, and he’s a Republican in a movie about the Iraq/Afghanistan War, so you know he’s going to be very gung-ho about the war, very religious, and very slippery. At least the movie acknowledges that Roth’s a typical liberal, self-righteous journalist, but that’s presented as less of a character flaw than it is just her responsibility. Senator Cruise (let’s face it, it’s easier to ditch the pretext of calling these people by their characters‘ names) is meeting with her to offer her an exclusive story: a major new offensive taking place in Afghanistan, whereby small units of American soldiers will seize strategic locations in the mountains during the Afghan winter, thereby snatching them up before the Taliban can get to them.

"Man, coffee just gets me jazzed and ready to go! Now, let's sit and talk about attendance records!"

The movie treats this entirely seriously, as some kind of a major scoop that is going to advance Streep’s career, but seriously, when did you ever hear a story about Iraq or Afghanistan that was not about either strategic failures (past tense), terrorist attacks, domestic protests, or political failures? I’m reasonably sure that the news media doesn’t treat Iraq and Afghanistan like a Civil War board game that takes 6 hours to play: military strategy that doesn’t involve some impressive new weapon isn’t going to be a top story. Regardless, Cruise is presenting the new strategy--which is being put into effect just as the meeting begins--as a turning point that could wind up winning the war. Streep, being a good journalist, discusses the strategy with skepticism, and being a good liberal, this means rattling down a list of talking points regarding military failures over the past six years, particularly those that aren’t even vaguely relevant to the situation at hand. Cruise responds by saying, “mistakes were made,” but going through his own laundry list of talking points. Streep responds to those arguments by saying more of her own talking points. And Cruise responds by saying, “mistakes were made,” and going through talking points. I hope you have a comfortable couch.

"Drinkin' coffee!"

Story B takes place in Afghanistan, where the strategy Senator Cruise talked about is taking effect. Arion Finch (Derek Luke) and Ernest Rodriguez (Michael Pena) are among the marines flying to a snow-covered mountainside as part of the operation. However, it turns out that contrary to the intelligence, the Taliban already has people on the mountain, and the chopper gets pummeled by (surprisingly accurate and efficient) anti-aircraft fire. Ernest falls out of the chopper, and Arion, being his best friend, jumps out a few moments later after him, no parachute or anything. And since he’s being so earnest (no pun intended) about helping his friend, we don’t have to worry about him getting seriously hurt or killed at the end of his long fall onto the mountain. Not yet, at least.

Wait, Keith Jackson was in this movie and they focused on "Todd Hayes" instead?

Story C gets us away from the political power players and soldiers locked in mortal combat, and to the place where really important things happen, “A California University.” There, Political Science professor Stephen Malley (Robert Redford) has called a student, Todd Hayes (Andrew Garfield) into his office for an early-morning meeting (eight o’clock is apparently impossibly early for California college professors). He’s worried that Todd hasn’t been attending classes lately, and wants to know why. Todd explains that he’s very busy with his girlfriend, frat boy responsibilities (which, God have mercy on me, I kind of wished this movie was more about), and work. He’s so discouraged by the cynicism of the elected officials in Washington that he doesn’t care about Political Science anymore. Understandable, but Professor Redford sees potential in this kid: he’s such a remarkable student that he once somewhat successfully defended an argument in a class! Amazing, I know! The world’s this kid’s oyster. His ability to talk in class completely negates his cavalier attitude and constant s***-eating smirk. When the kid suggests that the old Greek philosophers were far more genuine than our modern politicians, Redford responds, “You ever been to Greece? Their government makes ours look like a streamlined vision of the future.” Wow, what a great, witty statement. And it’s so true that the best way to argue that the Greek philosophers were imperfect is to point out that 2,000 years after they all died, Greece had experienced political turmoil.

"Pull it. The Power of Hubbard compels you."

Back where something somewhat less important is happening, Senator Cruise’s thrilling press conference with one reporter, they’re still arguing. And I don’t mean arguing in the sense that they are making statements of fact in support of their agenda, then responding to each other with further statements that clarify the truth and bring the two people together toward something resembling mutual understanding. I mean that Streep runs through every argument/suggestion/taunt against the war from the past six years, and the film alternates that with Cruise repeating something he heard on the Mike Gallagher show at one time or another. The conversation goes something like this:

Oh, man, he's gesturing! This movie's getting intense!

“Well, the US helped Saddam in the ‘80s, but now we’ve toppled him. That seems like a bad policy.”
“True, but we were attacked on 9/11.”
“Indeed, but we need better armor on Humvees.”
“Yes, but that doesn’t change the fact that Iran is harboring terrorists.”
“Perhaps, but we have lots of fighter planes and subs that aren’t helping in this particular conflict, so it’s obvious that we should get rid of them.”
“Acknowledged, but Iraq and Afghanistan will be in terrible shape if we leave now. We can‘t abandon our allies.”
“Maybe, but we don’t have as many troops in Afghanistan as we do in Iraq.”
“Touche, but we have better intelligence now.”
“Ah-ha! But this conflict kind of reminds me of Vietnam, and since Vietnam was bad, you lose.”

And an overhead projector! No wonder this thing cost $250 million to make!

And so on. It’s really quite spectacular to see a movie that thinks it riveting cinema to see a fake Senator and a fake journalist arguing about a real war, using weaker versions of the arguments that actually get discussed by real people on television, talk radio, and print every damn day.

"Tom, I hope you understand I can't let this picture leak to the press. You're a good friend, but I can't let my association with you drag down my popularity."

At the front in Afghanistan--which is largely irrelevant because there are no highly-paid actors sitting at desks--Arion and Ernest are waking up after their falls from the chopper. Yeah, they fell out maybe a minute apart from each other, on a fast-moving chopper, which means they landed about twenty feet from each other. In addition to being very cold and Ernest being very injured after taking some flak in the leg, they have another problem. The Taliban knows they’re there, and is sending troops their way. The commander in charge of the operation (Peter Berg) watches them from infrared satellite, struggling to get a rescue chopper their way. Bombers make some strafing runs on the Taliban positions, but since the explosions they cause look a bit less impressive than something MacGyver could manufacture with three inches of duct tape, a toothpick, and a Derek Turnbow bobblehead doll, they’re not doing a good job of keeping the Taliban from advancing.

See, I'm being fair to the movie. I included a picture of the action scene.

Back at the mid-level story in terms of importance, Cruise is starting to turn things on Streep a bit. They’re still going through the laundry list of tired arguments for and against the war, but Cruise has successfully argued that the news media is only slamming the war because it’s popular to do so now, and that back when the public supported the war, they were gung-ho about it too. To which Streep doesn’t really have much of an argument. When Cruise has to leave the room for a minute to take a phone call, Streep fills the empty minutes by looking at all the photos on his wall, which have him posed with Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell, Darth Cheney, and Voldemort himself, George W. Bush. Didn’t notice Rumsfeld, but otherwise, the photos show that fake Senator Cruise is in deep with the Bush dream team. I’m not sure if the point of this scene was to just show of the Visual Effects team’s mad Photoshop skills, or to immediately negate the fair and accurate arguments Cruise just made by showing that he’s a buddy of people who we all know are the most evil human beings ever.

" I tied an onion to my belt. Which was the style at the time. Now, to take the ferry cost a nickel, and in those days, nickels had bumblebees on them! Gimme five bees for a quarter you'd say..."

Back at University of Either California, Berkeley or Southern California, Professor Redford is telling still-smirking Todd about his former students, Arion and Ernest. Todd immediately reaffirms his status as gifted student by joking about how the name Arion sounds like “Aryon,” which is kind of connected with the Nazis, and it’s ironic because he’s black. At this point, the film becomes only watchable for the .01% chance it will end with Todd getting eaten alive by piranha with rusty teeth. Regardless, Arion and Ernest were not gifted students, but they worked very hard, and argued very courageously, and Redford was proud of them for coming out of tough neighborhoods. But as part of their final school project, when they were tasked with helping to change the world, they enlisted. This wasn’t at all what Professor Redford had intended, since he’s thoroughly anti-war and all that, but while Arion and Ernest took his enthusiasm for activism, they didn’t take his distrust of the military. They figure that serving their country will help them better themselves far more than if they had just gone straight to grad school. And while Professor Redford thoroughly objected to this, he admired their eagerness to make a difference in the world. And why is this story, about black and Hispanic students who chose to enlist in the armed forces, incorrectly in both Redford and Todd’s opinion, particularly relevant to wealthy frat boy Todd? Or more importantly, why is it likely to make him lose his cynicism about government? Uhhh. Hmmm. Welllll. Let’s get back to Tom and Meryl, why don’t we?

"Now, the purpose of a green screen is to project special effects of flying saucers or giant monsters by the time the movie actually reaches theaters, right?"

As the Cruise/Streep interview winds down, with no sign of a fist fight, musical number, or sex scene in sight to pay off all the time we’ve spent watching fake stuffy people argue things we already know, Streep acknowledges that her news company is pushing stories that they think the public will like, regardless of truth. Just as the meeting’s about to end, Cruise gets a phone call that seems to shock and worry him. I imagine the guy on the other end is saying, “Senator, this is Strategic Command. One chopper got shot up as part of our massive offensive, and two marines are missing! It’s all over, man! We’re pulling out! Game over, man! Game over!”

I'm not sure if this is a gesture or a scratch, but the internet message boards are buzzing with speculation.

Streep departs for the news room, looking very troubled. When she arrives, she tells her boss (Kevin Dunn) about the new military strategy, and he’s all excited about the story, apparently under the misconception that the public will care about it. But Streep doesn’t want to report it, because she realizes that Cruise was just feeding her propaganda, and that if they report it, they’ll just be supporting a disastrous military policy all over again. To which I would respond: why the hell do you think it’s not your job to report that a major military offensive is, in fact, taking place? That’s not propaganda, that’s fact. Are you saying that it’s wrong to report a story about what is actually occurring in Afghanistan just because it might support the war effort? If so, thank you very much Robert Redford, by way of Meryl Streep, for supporting the notion that major media organizations are full of self-righteous blockheads who are positive of how their government should work, and will suppress reports on any fact that might lead people toward another conclusion. Regardless, Streep has to decide whether she’ll report the story or, as her boss implies, get fired.

"And that's how YOU can make millions with the three-step plan, working from home ten hours a week!"

In Afghanistan, the Taliban apparently wants to capture Arion and Ernest alive, and the two brave soldiers are running out of ammo. With the Taliban closing in and the rescue chopper nowhere in sight, they decide to stand up and die on their feet. Which they do, successfully. Don’t get me wrong, it’s very sad, and it’s a terrible thing to think about brave soldiers dying for their country. But dude, we saw this coming. If you really thought a severely anti-war movie was going to allow a pair of soldiers, a black guy and a Hispanic guy who had gone Neo-Con instead of spending more time in a California university, to survive the war, you’re a very lucky person. You have the gift of enjoying a lot more movies than I do. It must be so much fun to watch a James Bond movie and not realize the secondary babe is going to die, or to watch a disaster movie and wonder if the cop and geologist, divorced years ago because of their obsessions with work, are going to get back together again.

Sam the American Eagle drives away from his Senate hearing, pondering the future of the nation he loves.

As for Todd, his little talk with Professor Redford ends kind of inconclusively, due to the Professor needing to meet with another student, which gives this subplot the dramatic payoff it so thoroughly deserves. Todd goes back to sit on the couch in the lobby of his frat house--which looks like a ski lodge and has a wide-frakking-screen TV to boot!--and watch headline news on TV with a contemplative look on his face, a sign that maybe he’s going to put his limitless snark and shallow observations to good use and make good on his limitless promise. Hey, with Al Franken leaving talk radio for the US Senate, there’s a gaping void for loud-mouthed left-wing buffoon out there.

At this point, no gesturing was necessary. The emotion was so vivid, it was palpable.

Lions for Lambs presents itself as a deep and even-handed analysis of the recent American policy of military intervention in the Middle East, but it’s actually just a regurgitation of shallow cable TV news sound bytes. The conservatives are Bill O’Reilly, and the liberals are Keith Olbermann. Believe it or not, columnists, Political Science college professors, and Senators are not the people best-equipped to talk about fighting a war. There are a lot of serious people, on both sides of the political spectrum, supporting the war abroad and condemning it. Whose damned idea was it to think that it would be great to make a movie that is 1/3 fake reporter and fake Congressman making cable news-level arguments to each other, 1/3 teacher-student conference, and 1/3 cheaper version of Black Hawk Down? Oh right, director Robert Redford, working off a script by Matthew Michael Carnahan that would have been equally vapid as a novel, but at least more appropriate to its medium. I’ve liked some Redford-directed movies, but the general Hollywood consensus seems to be that if you’re making an anti-war movie, sheer anger is sufficient to replace the very tenets of making a good movie, the first of which is that people talking politics through each other for 90 minutes (which is a lot longer than it sounds) does not make great cinema. If it’s a character study, or at least a movie about real people, that’s one thing, but to watch a bunch of old actors use clich├ęd characters as sounding boards for their own views (or in Cruise’s case, to pantomime “the enemy”) is a pretty spectacular act of hubris. Ironically, evil Senator Cruise actually makes a fair number of points that, if expanded upon, would make for a strong argument. But in the end, any supposed truth in what he said could clearly be ignored because he’s also an ambitious politician.

The anchor is named Summer Hernandez-Kowalski? Maybe this movie was funnier than I thought.

But at least Robert Redford is on record as saying that he does not like Republicans and he does not like war. Thanks, Robert. You could have just done like Sean Penn and flown down to Cuba to talk to Fidel Castro and say something stupid about America. Oh wait, you did. Well, then you’ve one-upped Mr. Penn. I guess we’ll have the Sean Penn-directed Bad Things Are Bad to look forward to.

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