Friday, December 28, 2007

War of the Words

More reviews from 2007:

I AM NOT A FAN of Tom Cruise, but I must admit he is perfectly cast in Lions for Lambs, a very wordy political film directed by Robert Redford. As Republican Senator Jasper Irving, Cruise is all scrubbed good looks and Pepsodent smile, kind of a Ralph Reed without the scandalous baggage. He is the ideal mouthpiece for the senator’s hawkish ideas. “We cannot allow evil and terror to spread!” he tells a news reporter played by Meryl Streep.

The juicy role taps into a dark quality in Cruise that hasn’t often been exploited in his movies. You can imagine him holding forth in the same charismatic, fanatical way about the virtues of Scientology.

The centerpiece of Lions for Lambs is a debate between Irving and the reporter, Janine Roth, a correspondent for a CNN-type news network. The junior senator has selected Roth, who once wrote a flattering magazine profile of him, for an “exclusive” on a “new plan for Afghanistan.” The plan, roughly analogous in its dubious efficacy to the Iraq surge, involves sending small platoons to the front lines as a sort of “bait” for Taliban fighters.

Janine, who started her career in the Vietnam era, expresses eloquent if boilerplate skepticism about the Iraq war’s phony justification and strategic failures. Jasper counters with evocations of 9/11 (“We were attacked!”), xenophobic talk about Muslims, and that current favorite on the casus belli hit parade, a nuclear Iran. He even hints darkly about using nuclear weapons.

Matthew Michael Carnahan’s dense screenplay interweaves this duet with two other loosely related stories. One centers on a conversation between Stephen Malley (Redford), a political science professor at a California university, and a clever but apathetic student named Todd (Andrew Garfield). Malley, a Vietnam vet who believes in power of grassroots politics, tries to inspire Todd by telling him about two former students, Ernest and Arian, inner-city scholarship students who decided to forego graduate school and enlist in the Army. Though he was horrified by their decision, Malley says he “reveres” it. The story is vague and a bit cliché. Malley encourages young people like Todd to do “something,” even if it’s just licking envelopes. “Rome is burning, son! The problem is with us who do nothing.” Todd spouts the kind of premature cynicism that characterizes his media-numbed generation.

The third segment involves Ernest and Arian (Michael Peña and Derek Luke), who are on the front line of Jasper’s cherished Afghanistan mission. Their helicopter is shot down, stranding them on a hillside surrounded by Taliban fighters. The two young men, one African-American, the other Hispanic, are the sacrificial lambs of the government’s new strategy to “win the war.”

The Cruise-Streep story is the strongest of the three, but even so, Jasper and Roth are not so much people as positions, mouthing standard arguments for and against the war. The technique is occasionally jarring; characters say things because they’re part of the writer’s argument, not because the characters would plausibly say them. In the interview with Janine, Jasper launches into a cogent critique of mainstream media’s complaisant role in the run-up to the Iraq invasion. It’s unlikely that this ambitious GOP senator would express these views so candidly to the press. Would Dick Cheney openly taunt the media for swallowing his WMD hype?

The characters are made of cardboard, but good acting and an articulate script makes them watchable. Streep is especially effective; arguing with her editor about the ethics of running Jasper’s propaganda, she makes us feel the veteran reporter’s moral and professional weariness.

This is a high-quality film made with noble intentions, but it isn’t likely to excite audiences, who are apparently in no mood for serious discussions about the war. Somber war movies such as In the Valley of Elah and Rendition have induced a collective yawn, while the grisly torture fantasy Saw IV has raked in over $30 million.

Originally published in the Cleveland Free Times,

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