the film snob

A cyberspace journal about my experiences as an NYU film school grad student, reviews of current and classic films, film and TV news, and the rants and raves of an admitted (and unapologetic) film snob.

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Esse Quam Videri -- To be, rather than to appear

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Lions for Lambs

Lions for Lambs is peculiarly unique in my movie-going experience. I can’t remember the last time I saw film that I both disliked and want to see again as soon as possible.

Lions for Lambs is three stories on parallel tracks. In the first, skeptical reporter Janine Roth (Meryl Streep) is granted an interview with neocon Senator Jasper Irving (Tom Cruise), a lawmaker with the president’s ear and the architect of a new battle strategy to shore up America’s failing ambitions in Afghanistan. Cruise is the perfect actor to play the passionately earnest, if misguided statesman. In his first film since his infamous PR meltdown, Cruise oozes his trademark charm, but cannot conceal a certain venire of guile. While Senator Irving comes across as whitewashing reality and instituting a too-little-too-late policy, he is never caricatured as malicious or dim-witted. Streep’s veteran journalist is world-weary, jaded and coming apart at the seams. She would be equally enraged at Irving’s spin and her own political lethargy if she had any stamina left with which to respond.

In the second story, Professor Stephen Malley (Robert Redford) sits in an office besieged by books, trying desperately to convince loafing student Todd Hayes (Andrew Garfield) that his blistering promise and potential is needed now more than ever. In the most heartfelt of the segments, director Redford, who is one of those singular vintages who just gets better with age, reveals his hand — a young, engaged, empathetic population is the key and indeed, the only hope to salvaging our national virility.

In trying to persuade his slacker student, Malley evokes Ernest Rodriguez (Michael Peña) and Arian Finch (Derek Luke), two formers students from the wrong side of the tracks who translated their selfless idealism into potent action by joining the Army, a decision Malley esteemed but with which he vehemently disagreed. This third arm of the story finds the two Special Forces soldiers trapped alone on a snowy Afghan mountaintop with the enemy closing in fast.

Lions for Lambs borrows its title from a remark made during World War I by a German officer commenting on the bravery of British soldiers in contrast to the criminal stupidity of their commanders. Redford does not even try to hide the fact that he views the current political leadership in America and the men and women who fight for it, in the same light.

The seventh film under his tutelage, Lions for Lambs may be Redford’s most unremarkable insofar as technique is concerned, but his bravest in terms of subject matter. This is obviously an issue for which he has great conviction.

Lions for Lambs is the sort of uber-preachy film for which conservatives love to eviscerate liberals. Though Redford obviously places blame with conservatives for getting America into Iraq, his fellow liberals do not escape unscathed. Redford charges them with collusion during and apathy after. In fact, a broad spectrum, from educators to the media to a listless public all fall under Redford’s sights.

The problem is, for all of its good intentions and clear-eyed idealism, Lions for Lambs is not a movie, it is a political science lecture. The film is almost nothing but talking, interspersed with a bit of pacing here and there. Once in a great while something blows up. Conversation — even that of the very best and most erudite kind — inherently lacks drama. The dense and undeniably intelligent script is somewhat fascinating, if only minutely compelling.

The theater and the classroom are not the same medium — if this exact same discussion were to have taken place in a college lecture hall, it would constitute one of the most rousing days ever spent in academia. But as a film, Lions for Lambs fails completely.

Too dense for its own good, viewers will be appropriately impressed by the sheer amount and delivery of screenwriter Matthew Michael Carnahan’s prose, but will probably be unable to retain anything more than fragments and colors of its meaning. For this reason alone, I am interested in dissecting the film a second time — if I’m able to stay awake.


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