Sunday, July 7, 2013


(November 2007, U.S.)

I am of the opinion that history has shown a rather gross inconsistency regarding the timing of war-related films. Almost immediately following the United States' entry into World War II in 1941, combat films and war dramas (many of them starring John Wayne) were in the highest demand to keep the war effort and the spirit of America moving forward. The Korean conflict was virtually overlooked and despite the overwhelming popularity of films like THE DEER HUNTER (1978) and APOCALYPSE NOW (1979), it wasn't until the mid-1980s when films of the Vietnam War gained a general acceptance with the American moviegoing public. And like Korea, the first Gulf War of 1991 was virtually overlooked on film (COURAGE UNDER FIRE with Denzyl Washington and Meg Ryan being the only one I can come up with). So here we are, twelve years passed since September 11, 2001 and the United States' war on terror and the small group of films that have strongly addressed the subject seem to have been met with less than strong enthusiam and acceptance. Why is that? How does our American spirit against our enemies of the world differ from wartime eras long since vanished? Why were we so gung-ho to watch John Rambo destroy outdated enemies of Vietnam back in 1985 but seem to have less of that gung-ho spirit to watch American soldiers kill memebers of the Taliban on the big screen during this past century? These are questions that, perhaps, film scholars much brighter and more experienced than myself can answer. I can only say for LIONS FOR LAMBS that director Robert Redford makes a strong attempt to show American audiences exactly where we were in the midst of the second George W. Bush administration and what we needed to force ourselves to think about.

This is a thought-provoking film of three simultaneous stories that very likely take place in the span of merely one hour. At a West Coast university, two determined students, Arian (played by Derek Luke) and Ernest (played by Michael Peña), at the urging of their idealistic professor, Dr. Malley (played by Redford himself), attempt to do something important with their lives by making the bold decision to commission themselves in the U.S. army to fight in Afghanistan after graduating from college. Dr. Malley is also attempting to reach talented and privileged, but disaffected, student Todd Hayes (played by Spiderman's Andrew Garfield). He's is naturally bright but has apparently slipped into apathy upon being disillusioned at the present state of affairs of our country. Dr. Malley tests him by offering a choice between a respectable grade of 'B' in the class with no additional work required or a final opportunity to re-engage with the material of the class and "do something." Before Todd makes his choice, he must listen to Dr. Malley's story of his former students Arian and Ernest and why they are in Afghanistan. Myself, I probably would've taken the 'B' without the work, but anyway...

So manwhile, in Washington, D.C., a charismatic Republican presidential hopeful, Senator Jasper Irving (played by Tom Cruise), has invited liberal TV journalist Janine Roth (played by Meryl Streep) to his office to announce a new war strategy in Afghanistan that involves the use of small units to seize strategic positions in the mountains ("forward operating points") before the Taliban can occupy them. This, by the way, is the exact mission that will inevitably involve Arian and Ernest and carry them to their destiny as American soldiers (I won't give their fates away!) The senator hopes that Roth's positive coverage will help convince the public that the plan is sound and just. But Janine has her doubts and fears she's merely being asked to become an instrument of government bullshit propaganda. Near the end of the film, she informs her commercially-minded boss of her plans to call out the senator's new strategy for what she feels is nothing more than a ploy. Ultimately, Senator Irving's version of the story is run without the critical interaction. Whether Janine gave in and toed the company line or quit her job is not clear, but Cruise's portrayel of a smooth-talking, snake-charming politician who would make a used car salesman seem ethical is just dead-on perfect in my book. I also have to point out that one of my favorite moments of Janine's examples of pointing out just how persistently corrupt the politics of our government are, are when she cites specific song lyrics of The Who's "Won't Get Fooled Again" that goes "Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss".

Unfortunately, LIONS FOR LAMBS was not a box office or a critical success and it absolutely puzzles me as to the reasons why. Are we still unwilling to truly embrace the harsh realities of the war on terror in film? Have we all just become too brainwashed and enslaved by the latest comic book franchise sequel that we're unwilling and unable to just stop for a moment and consider some hard, controversial issues in film? Not speaking for myself personally, I would normally go for the latter. In this case, however, I'm just not sure what the answer is. I believe that LIONS FOR LAMBS just might have had to potential to change the minds of people, even for a mere ninety minutes, if they'd simply allowed it to. Who knows. Or as Ayn Rand might have put it, who is "John Galt"?

Favorite line or dialogue:

Janine Roth: "Why did we send 150,000 troops to a country that did not attack us, and one-tenth that number to the one that did?"
Senator Jasper Irving: "How many times are you people going to ask the same question?"
Janine: "'Till we get the answer."

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