Sunday, July 12, 2009

Movie Review:LionsFor Lambs

Packed with star power in a dialog-driven drama about the most urgent issue of our time—the Bush administration's undeclared, unsuccessful so-called war on terror—Robert Redford's Lions for Lambs roars.

That assessment is strictly in contrast to the current crop of brain-dead snoozers playing in theaters, which mean about as much as the Democratic Party's opposition to President Bush's Iraq military presence, which has cost thousands of American lives—with no gain for the nation. The 88-minute Lions for Lambs does not make that last point—it doesn't come close—but it does what a good movie ought to do: it gives one a reason—actually, several—to think.

With a breathlessly pedantic script by Matthew Michael Carnahan (who also wrote The Kingdom) and featuring Tom Cruise and Meryl Streep, the first release from Mr. Cruise's reconfigured United Artists draws from Mr. Redford's direction. The man who directed such outstanding pictures as the riveting Ordinary People (1980) and the razor-sharp Quiz Show (1994) directs and produces Lions for Lambs. He also plays an honorable professor named Malley.

Dr. Malley's lessons figure into the lives of his students and one particularly disengaged youngster (Andrew Garfield) who's prone to fraternity rites, channel-surfing and ditching Dr. Malley's class. As the challenging Westerner, seventysomething Mr. Redford is positively charged in an about-face from his role as the irritable rancher in An Unfinished Life. The brash student is the stand-in for today's text-messaging, passively spoon-fed automaton, one of many instantly recognizable types in this head-spinning talkathon.

Three couplings populate the picture. Besides the college pair, who signify a strand of hope for a future influenced by new intellectuals, there's a United States senator who supports the war on terror (Mr. Cruise) and the journalist (Miss Streep) to whom the senator grants an exclusive preview of another half-baked incursion (this one in Afghanistan). The third duo is two soldiers (Derek Luke, Michael Pena) attempting to engage the enemy in this historic military mobilization created by America's intellectuals.

The soldiers are the least developed due to the multi-faceted storyline's connective tissue, allowing for a cashing-in that hits home later. While their set-up is contrived, it works. As one wise character says when another throws out a politically correct hyphenated-American term: "stay focused on the American part."

Lions for Lambs does, stitching subplots, with a title based on U.S. war history, a focus on individual actions and with life as the standard. The movie includes a doublespeak question—"do you want to win the War on Terror?"—posed by the government that every adult American is morally accountable to address. Who wouldn't be inclined to say "yes?" Yet that is what those who have initiated this inverted war seek: obedience from those who choose not to question the question.

With enemy gunfire ripping our men to shreds, the slippery senator catapults the latest surge of sacrificed troops past the reporter—with her pulling the lever—and Dr. Malley tries to stir the lost youth from his unthinking state. As the typical, entrenched Baby Boomer journalist, Miss Streep is putty in her Out of Africa co-star's hands, though she can't resist neurotically touching her face whenever she gets the chance.

Miss Streep's character, Janine Roth, is the most damaging, because, unlike the politician, merely another power-luster, or the student, who may not know better, she knows she's being used—like most of today's top press members, she is part of the status quo—and she is more conscious of popular downloads than she is of what comes with her byline. Her New Left ideals are as powerless in assuaging her guilt as they are in opposing a war with a premise, i.e., altruism, identical to her own. She is the embodiment of today's media stars: a willing exponent of a wrong war. The anti-war journalist and the pro-war politician share one another's philosophy; he uses liberal jargon—like that tipping point nonsense—to hustle his poison and she takes his dose of neo-conservatism with barely a whimper.

Meanwhile, the two brave soldier-brothers sit like many of our soldiers in harm's way—without purpose, crippled in every way—like the Marines in Beirut and Fallujah, or the U.S. embassy Marines ordered not to shoot in Teheran or the sailors of the U.S.S. Cole.

In fast-talking, tight mini-monologues and scenes of carnage, with allusions to Abe Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt, Lions for Lambs, which does not offer an alternative, shows that we are all either lions or lambs. With Robert Redford as a steadying guide, on and off screen, the insightful United Artists picture reminds us of that pressing choice.

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