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Saturday Night at the Movies by Dennis Hartley review archive

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Hullabaloo


Saturday, November 17, 2007

 
Saturday Night At The Movies

Ordinary people go to war

By Dennis Hartley

I’m a schoolboy. Teach me. Teach me.

There are three things I learned from watching Robert Redford’s new film “Lions for Lambs”. (1) The MSM is in bed with K Street spin doctors (2 ) War is hell, and (3) Apparently, the United States is currently embroiled in some kind of endless Vietnam-like quagmire in the Middle East (I didn’t say I learned anything NEW, did I?).

Redford casts himself as Vietnam vet/poly sci professor Stephen Malley, who strives to mentor his brightest and most promising students to “walk the walk” and commit themselves to affecting real political change through active civic involvement. Two of his recent graduate students, Arian Finch (Derek Luke) and Ernest Rodriguez (Michael Pena) have not only accepted his challenge to “get involved”, but upped the ante by enlisting for combat duty in Afghanistan. Professor Malley feels conflicted; while he admires their integrity, he had secretly hoped the young men would be inspired to use their talents to help change the system that perpetuates the Vietnam and Afghanistan type conflicts, rather than volunteering to become cannon fodder themselves (“Gallipoli”, anyone?). His current concern this school year, however, is his latest star pupil, Todd Hayes (Andrew Hayes) who has sunk into apathy. Todd has been called into the office for a pep talk.

Unbeknownst to the professor, while he is sitting in his office chatting so amiably, his two ex-pupils are taking part in the first wave of a new military strategy to locate and destroy stubborn pockets of Taliban resistance in Afghanistan. Small units of Special Forces troops are being sent in to the most rugged mountain areas to bait the enemy into the open, so they can be easily taken out by technical air strikes. Cannon fodder, indeed.

The plan is the brainchild of an ambitious, ultra-hawkish conservative congressman, Senator Jasper Irving (Tom Cruise, who also co-produced the film). As the film opens, he is sitting down for an interview with a hotshot TV journalist, Janine Roth (Meryl Streep). Irving is a rising star in the Republican Party, who is grooming himself for a presidential bid. The senator has cagily chosen Janine to receive the “exclusive” news on the new military strategy, because he credits some of her previous profile pieces on him as having played an instrumental part in building up his present cachet in Washington. Janine is apprehensive; she knows she’s being played, but on the other hand no reporter with a pulse can resist an exclusive story. A verbal cat-and-mouse game ensues.

The film is structured around these three scenarios; all the “action” (such as it is) takes place concurrently in a professor’s office, a senator’s office, and a remote mountain ridge in Afghanistan. And that is “Lions for Lambs” in a nutshell. While the stories are obviously tied together by characters and events, the overall effect is oddly stilted and dramatically flat. Redford’s character literally spends the entire film lecturing the relatively passive Todd (a transparent proxy for us, the hapless audience). The Afghanistan scenes are chock-a-block with clichéd “Blackhawk Down” movie heroics.

The only real acting sparks are ignited courtesy of la Streep, who has some spirited moments with Cruise. Cruise is OK, though basically playing himself, and in essence replaying a suspiciously similar scene he did in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Magnolia”, where an arrogant, egotistical control freak of a media star sits down with a reporter and spins like a dervish. Full disclosure: I am not a huge Tom Cruise fan (there, I said it).

I really wanted to like this film, really I did. Historically, Redford has proven himself to be a thoughtful and intelligent filmmaker-but I can’t really recommend this one. I applaud his effort to snap our present generation of future leaders out of their videogame stupor, challenging them to think hard about what our government is really up to; but if you’re going to rip a story out of today’s headlines and turn it into a movie, you’ve got to give the kids something more exciting to watch than a glorified C-Span broadcast.

It’s a shame, really- because the audience he really needs to reach is going to stay away from this film in droves. At the sparsely attended Saturday matinée screening I attended here in Seattle, I glanced around and found myself essentially looking at fellow choir members, nodding sympathetically while thoughtfully stroking our salt-and-pepper goatees. But are any of us going to rush home and announce our candidacy? Not likely.

Maybe Cruise and Redford would get more mileage out of their film if they arrange showings for high school civics and poly sci college classes (no, I’m not being facetious). Otherwise, the only way you are going to successfully market a film with a socio-political message to the “Jackass” demographic is to follow Sacha Baron Cohen’s lead.


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