Friday, April 18, 2008

Lions For Lambs

Director: Robert Redford
Starring: Tom Cruise, Robert Redford, Meryl Streep, Andrew Garfield, Derek Luke, Michael Pena, Peter Berg

Running Time: 91 min.

Rating: R

**1/2 (out of ****)

Of all the politically themed dramas Hollywood has nauseatingly dished out to us in the past year I was dreading Lions For Lambs the most. I figured with big power players like Tom Cruise, Robert Redford and Meryl Streep attached there would be no one there to rein them and they'd make fools of themselves juggling this heavy-handed subject matter. With Cruise producing and Redford directing those fears were only magnified. Much to my surprise, they actually restrain themselves a little and parts of it are actually very good. I'm convinced this is only because it does a better job hiding its blatant one-sided agenda than expected. It almost had me.

The film tries to be a call to action and tell us that as citizens we should be involved and alert to what's going on in even the smallest way possible. It does this by telling three different but interrelated stories concerning The United States' war on terror in the Middle East. One of these stories is thought provoking, another boring, while a third is unintentionally hilarious.

This is the first feature to be released under the Cruise led United Artists banner after he was unceremoniously dumped by Paramount following his Oprah couch jumping debacle and other various public displays of embarrassment a couple of years ago. It's an auspicious start and a very rare misstep for Cruise, whose choices in projects are usually flawless. A special feature on the DVD is a video montage highlighting all the great films released under United Artists, and there are many. This isn't likely to ever be listed among them. But of course you could argue Pieces of April had no place in the montage either but I think we know why that was there.

The silly, on-the-nose title of the film obviously refers to clueless political leaders (lambs) sending brave young men and women (lions) to slaughter overseas for no reason. So going in I really had no right to expect a fair and balanced treatment of the issue. And if anything, this film's commercial failure conclusively proved what we already knew: Audiences like to make their own minds up and don't like being preached to, no matter how slickly it's presented.

The first story involves an upcoming hotshot Republican Senator Jasper Irving (Cruise) who has a new strategy for the war in Afghanistan that he's willing to share only with veteran TV reporter Janine Roth (Streep) in an hour-long exclusive interview in his D.C. office. Janine had written a very flattering piece on the Senator 8 years ago that she's now starting to regret because she realizes this guy is full of hot air and just has his sights set on the White House. Now she has to objectively report on this latest piece of propaganda. The charismatic Senator will say and do anything to raise his profile, even if it means putting soldiers lives at risk.

Two of those soldiers fighting in Afghanistan right now and in immediate danger from this new strategy are college students Arian (Derek Luke) and Ernest (Michael Pena) who were inspired to enlist by a project given by their idealistic professor Dr. Stephen Malley (Redford). Malley is having an hour-long meeting with spoiled, apathetic student Todd Hayes (Andrew Garfield), who's been skipping class and is in danger of failing. Dr. Malley offers him a deal he has to think hard about and that could have a major bearing on his future. He tells him about his two former students, emphasizing that while he may not agree at all with what they did, he respects them for at least doing something.

This is a very talky movie. It clocks in at only 91 minutes but I'm sure if we saw a copy of Matthew Michael Carnahan's script it would be about 180 pages. Peter Berg, who plays a Lieutenant in Afghanistan, has a stretch of dialogue that has to be among the longest I've ever heard. All I could think listening was how it could even be humanly possible for anyone to memorize so many lines. As he just kept going, without even taking a breath, I actually started cracking up. All the war sequences are boring and major reason for that (besides not being filmed particularly well) is the narrative lets us know too late who these two soldiers are and their relationship to the professor. We don't really know why they're there until the last 15 minutes of the film so we don't care. It's a shame too because Luke and Pena give good performances and are terrific later on when we finally get to know who they are and what they stand for. It's a double-edged sword that the war sequences don't take up very much of the film because, while they may not be effective at all, do we really want something so important treated as a throwaway?

The film gives more than enough time to the ludicrous "showdown" between Cruise's Senator and Streep's liberal minded reporter. Cruise slides into the role of the cocky Senator effortlessly and audiences are likely to pick up on the irony of him playing a man who believes everything he says no matter how delusional. It's Tom Cruise playing Tom Cruise playing a slimy senator, but he's entertaining nonetheless. His character is essentially just a Bush stand-in though. It's humorous that in Rendition Meryl Streep was playing a conservative stereotype and now here she is playing a liberal one. She isn't very good at either and needs a new agent desperately because these ill-advised film choices are turning one of our most respected actresses into a joke. My (least) favorite moment with these two has to be when he leaves the room to take a phone call and she looks at his pictures on the wall, which includes a grinning Cruise superimposed into photos with President Bush and Condoleezza Rice. Then there's another photo of Cruise in military garb that looks like it's just a screenshot from the actor's role in Taps. It gets bad laughs, which isn't something you should be going for when handling material like this.

In all fairness, this section of the film does have some interesting ideas about the media and the two actors play off each other very well. If you're like me and believe the media can be blamed for everything you may enjoy this. Unfortunately, the film turns Streep's character into a pulpit preaching political lunatic late in the film when she has it out with her commercially minded boss over the content of her piece. Less would have been more in this scene. And the script actually asks us to accept that her bosses WOULDN'T dare move forward with a smear story on a Republican Senator. Where does she work? Fox News Channel.

Luckily for the film, the story involving Dr. Malley and the student he's trying to inspire is superb. Not only is Redford completely believable as a disillusioned academic, but the debate they have inside his office is spirited and intelligent. Unlike the other two sections of the film, this does really explore both sides of the issue and I loved how the Malley character acknowledged the fallacy of what his former students did, but still supported them. It also brings up an important issue about those Americans who are given the least often end up giving up the most, while those who are actually in a position to give, give nothing. Redford, with just the slightest mannerisms, suggests a whole history for this man that isn't even touched on verbally. The role probably isn't much of a stretch for the liberal actor but he plays it perfectly, proving why he's regarded as one of the best. Carnahan's script actually explores the fact that this guy would spend this much time with one of his students says as much about him and his perceived failings as it does the student.

As this student, Andrew Garfield gives the best performance in the film. He's one of those privileged preppy kids you can't stand who thinks they know everything even though they've experienced nothing. He's right there with Malley and has a wise-ass response for everything. I can't tell you how many people I've encountered just like this kid and Garfield nails it. Why couldn't the entire film been about them? Had the focus of this story been on Malley's relationships with his students and how he, for better or worse, attempted to provoke change in their lives, we really could have had something here. Instead the movie's liberal agenda seeps through in the Cruise/Streep storyline, knocking the wind out of the rest of the film.

As tough as it may be to believe, despite my misgivings of him as a celebrity, I actually like Tom Cruise a lot as an actor and take no delight in any of his projects, as an actor or a producer, failing. Redford is a national treasure as an actor and an accomplished director so it's a shame to see him involved in anything that isn't "A" level. I'd love to ask Cruise why he thought a movie exploring this topic would be a mainstream success when we're depressed enough seeing it on television everyday.

We go to movies to escape real world tragedies like this, not have our noses rubbed in it. I'm not against the topic being explored in a film per se, but if it is, it better inspire deep thought and say something important. Only one of the three stories contained in this came close to doing that. This isn't as shameless and sensationalistic as the awful Rendition but its goal is pretty much the same. In trying to present a meditation on the times we live in, Lions For Lambs succeeds mainly in conveying Hollywood's warped perception of them.

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