November 3, 2007

REVIEW: Lions for Lambs (C)

Background: The week after I posted my review of Rendition and mentioned the challenge of making these as-it's-happening "War on Terror" movies, A.O. Scott wrote this piece in the New York Times. You might call it plagiarism; I call it much more articulate than my drivel. In any case, Lions for Lambs has arrived as the next chapter in the Fall 2007 Iraq War series. It stars now-established Hollywood legends Robert Redford (recently in An Unfinished Life), Meryl Streep (also in Rendition), and Tom Cruise (last in MI:3), with supporting performances by Derek Luke (Antwone Fisher, Catch a Fire) and Michael Peña (Crash, World Trade Center). It's directed by Redford and written by Matthew Michael Carnahan, whose first screenplay was, sadly, The Kingdom. Lions for Lambs also marks the first film produced by Tom Cruise, or starring him, since his "termination" from Paramount Pictures in 2006 for "bad behavior." His new contract with United Artists begins with this film.

Synopsis: In Washington, D.C., Senator Jasper Irving (Cruise) is being interviewed in his office by reporter Janine Roth (Streep) about a new military strategy in Afghanistan. At the same time, said military strategy is beginning with complications, as best friends and soldiers Ernest Rodriguez (Peña) and Arian Finch (Luke) are stranded atop a snowy mountain, wounded and vulnerable to the approaching "enemy." Meanwhile, their idealistic college professor, Stephen Malley (Redford), is acting out Good Will Hunting scenes with a disillusioned but brilliant student named Todd Hayes at "a university in California." The three stories are happening simultaneously, and we hear different perspectives and typical talking points about the war, politics, America, apathy, and journalism. We learn about how Irving rose as a Republican star, how Malley fought in Vietnam, and how Rodriguez and Finch ended up in Afghanistan. At the end, there is a meltdown and argument between Roth and her editor about responsible journalism, a final firefight on the snowy mountaintop, and an abrupt send-off of Hayes by Malley.

I Loved:
+ The idea of comparing real time, simultaneously occurring discussions.

I Liked:
+ Tom Cruise, as always. Yes, I am a huge Tom Cruise movie fan. Not necessarily a Tom Cruise fan, but a Tom Cruise movie fan. Get the difference?
+ The final scene with Luke and
Peña - I thought that was moving.

I Disliked:
- The loudly placed Hurricane Katrina footage on the TV throughout the entire conversation between Janine Roth and her editor in the newsroom - if you want to make a movie about that, make a movie about that. Otherwise it's just an immature slight.
- Meryl Streep's naive facial expressions and general sensitivity throughout the interview - this is a D.C. reporter with 40 years of experience, including Vietnam, and she is surprised by blunt war talk? She looked like she was about to cry the whole time, and then she finally did.
- The poor special effects in "Afghanistan," especially involving the military chopper.

I Hated:
- Todd Hayes (Andrew Garfield) - a self-absorbed, jaded, know-it-all college student that I've seen in the mirror before. A true character if there ever was one, but still hard to watch.
- That the usual talking points were about as far as the discussions went.

Writing - 6
Acting - 7
Production - 7
Emotional Impact - 8
Music - 4
Significance - 5

Total: 37/50= 74% = C

Last Word: Though it doesn't effectively deliver its ambiguous challenge to America, Lions for Lambs is extraordinarily better than Rendition or The Kingdom, if only because it at least attempts to offer differing perspectives, even if they are the same extremely liberal CNN talking points vs. the same extremely conservative FOX News talking points. We hear a lot of people talking, but nobody is saying anything. In between witty banter by Cruise and Streep, we're lectured by Redford about civic engagement, and at one point even presented with an alternative to the military draft: a mandatory civil service requirement for all high school juniors. This is the only somewhat fresh idea in the whole movie, but it's rightly left alone as it has little to do with our current international dilemmas.
Lions for Lambs does a good job in reflecting the current confusion facing all Americans, and perhaps that's enough, but it doesn't even effectively present either side of the war debate. Clearly, Tom Cruise had to do some character research to play a Republican Senator, so that side is poorly developed (and heavily reliant on admission of mistakes). But even the anti-war argument is sloppily delivered - is it just about the troops? And what about the underlying jabs at journalism, students, political science, etc.? Obviously, I can't expect provocative or astute foreign policy analysis from a Hollywood movie, and besides, what could I expect from the writer of The Kingdom?

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