Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed Nov 14, 2007 3:15 am 
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Nice try, Doc--now rewrite it if you want a passing grade

The new political film Lions for Lambs has been accused of being like a lecture. It is--like a series of them--or an earnest, not terribly imaginative term paper. The main lesson is delivered by Robert Redford (Professor Stephen Malley) as a California college political science teacher spending an hour-plus one-on-one in his office with a talented boy named Todd (Andrew Garfield) who's lost interest in his class . Malley tells Todd about two other less talented, but motivated, exciting boys, one Latino (Ernest: Michael Peña), the other black (Arian: Derek Luke), so excited by a project he assigned they were driven to leave school and join the army. Redford tried to convince them not to, but in vain. This much more priviledged boy who calls him "doc," Mr. Redford urges to: (1) attend all his classes, which he regards as more important than getting A's, and (2) give up his presumed plans for a relatively comfy, irresponsible life and start caring about the country and working to make it more just and equal.

Meanwhile another hour-plus (in effect another one-on-one lecture) is devoted by Tom Cruise, as smirking young neo-con Senator Jasper Irving, to selling jaded veteran reporter Janine Roth (Meryl Streep) on a US new assault in Afghanistan using small squads of rangers in the high country to whip Al Qaeda. And guess what--those two students of "Doc" Redford are in the first, doomed mission that has been unleashed even as Senator Irving speaks. The effort to achieve excitement and momentum by intercutting these three sequences, prof's pep talk, combat mission, and senatorial propaganda briefing, is pointless since the three moments have no direct effect on each other: they're just three layers of the same earnest harrangue about the importance of minding the store at home and pulling back on policing the world. Too much telling, not enough showing, in the basic structure here.

Cruise is tiresome but rather bland (too close to his real persona?), nowhere near as edgy and memorable as his priapic motivational lecturer in Anderson's Magnolia, and Streep isn't very successful either in their sequence, wavering from feeble objection to compliance, her fingers frantically scribbling always at the top of her tablet. She's better in the scene where she argues with her editor (Kevin Dunn) about whether to use this story, when she's allowed to get a little angry and pace about. But the writing by Joe Carnahan's brother Matthew Michael Carnahan is clumsy. His dialogue has a lot of trouble focusing on the specifics of a scene, especially in Cruise's and Streep's. The professor's office chat is a string of talking points, but that fits better with an academic context. A flashback to a class presentation by the Latino and black students, though bascially more talking points, of course, is one of the movie's liveliest and smartest moments, because it presents a real context in which the pros and cons of activism can be argued. At its best though, the entire film never rises above the level of a high school civics debate.

The military sequences, alternating between the fate of Peña and Luke and the barking of commanding officer Lt. Col. Falco (Peter Berg). who's safely set up at some rear observation post, seem worst of all because they're plainly times when things must seem intense and real and they instead feel hasty and low-budget. Most important of all the film doesn't take the time to show the irony of these brave wounded young men being hung out to dry in the Afghan mountains while a horde of officers observe this on a radar scene and shout macho commands, endangering the squad with strafing fly-overs without wiping out the ever-present bad guys.

Berg and the Carnahan boys evidently are pals and Berg previously acted in Joe's messy but fun recent film Smokin' Aces. But the recent connection is Matthew Michael's authorship of the political potboiler The Kingdom--a de facto endorsement of get-tough colonialist US foreign policy directed by Berg So whose side is Mathew Michael really on? Maybe he doesn't know, and any "balance" viewers may attribute to the discussions here may more reasonably be chalked up simply to political muddle-headedness. The fact that Redford got hold of this material first when it was in the form of a play helps clarify why it never comes to life as a movie.

Ultimately what's painful about Lions for Lambs (not a good title, by the way--its point isn't likely to stick in anybody's head) is not the artificiality of the scenes but the failure to engage with the material in an intelligent manner. Redford's pleading to young men to care about politics is a worthwhile message, indeed a crucial one, but it doesn't belong in a movie. Paul Haggis is preachy too, but this effort makes Haggis' recent In the Valley of Elah look good because at least it has intensely realized, complex characters. Even Brian DePalma's crude new agit-prop-ish Redacted takes us relatively deeply into the world of today's military. This is a well-meaning, but wholly feeble effort. Students can get harsh when profs get self-righteous. The Onion A.V. Club gave Doc Redford a D for this War on Terror term paper. Maybe it needed to be sent back for a rewrite.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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