November 8, 2007

Lions For Lambs

Despite pounding on blunt political keynotes, Redford comes up with a referendum on star power

By Vadim Rizov

A few years ago, when it began dawning on the American public that we'd be in Iraq for a good long while, I vaguely recall lazy op-eds bemoaning a lack of Hollywood engagement with this generation’s Vietnam. Where were the new Deer Hunters and Apocalypse Nows? they bitched. Never mind that the 'Nam movies still being watched today came several years after the U.S. withdrawal, or that Hollywood always takes a few years to absorb changes; column space had to be filled.

Flash forward to 2007, and we've got war movies by the yard: Home Of The Brave, In The Valley of Elah, Redacted. I hope you're happy now, Mr. and Mrs. Pundit, my job just got a lot harder. It seems every week there's another well-meaning but hopelessly inadequate response to contend with. This week's entry, Lions For Lambs, falls right in line. Matthew Michael Carnahan's screenplay is even more inept than his work on The Kingdom, tackling multiple ideological voices without convincingly representing any one of them with any conviction. And Robert Redford's direction is so bizarrely airless that Lions's advocates may soon be calling it "experimental." It's a movie that feels like it skipped off-Broadway for reasons unknown.

Imagine a play with the stage divided into three, each third occupied by two players. The lights go on and off depending on who's talking, actors frozen in their poses until the lights come back on. All the way on the left: Senator Jasper Irving (Tom Cruise) facing off with journalist Janine Roth (Meryl Streep) in a one-hour exclusive interview where Irving tries to convince Roth to write a story about how American forces are newly kicking ass in Afghanistan, in order "to change the subject from the past to the present," he explains. In the middle third: soldiers Ernest (Michael Peña) and Arian (Derek Luke), sweating their guts out on said mission in the fakest outdoor snow-covered mountains of all time. On the right (though never fear, target audience, not politically): Prof. Stephen Malley (Robert Redford), an allegorical academic chewing out equally allegorical, errant student Todd Hayes (Andrew Garfield), for his political cynicism and indifference. The two discussions –- political theory and ideology -- frame the action in real time. Congratulations: you've just envisioned all 92 minutes of Lions For Lambs.

Redford can shoot coverage and cut from medium-shots to close-ups with the best of them; what he can't do is make Lions seem like anything more than rudimentary sets momentarily populated (combined number of total locations, by the way: seven). Redford's strangest decision is, with his early establishing titles, not just spelling out "Eastern Standard Time" -- lest "EST" prove too confusing -- but pasting the title "Professor Stephen Malley's Office" -- over a door with that name already on it! It's so creaky, so basic-cable in its production values, you have to wonder if it's not meant to be taken at face value.

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The three conversations hit all of the blunt keynotes anyone reasonably up-to-date on the news would expect: Irving and Roth trade barbs about who bears greater responsibility for our debacle, a misinformed government or too-compliant media; Malley and Hayes hash out responsibility and involvement vs. cynicism and disaffection; and Ernest and Arian, former students of Malley's, lie quietly and get shot at -- Peña, fresh from the rubble of World Trade Center, had better watch out before he ends up specializing in these roles. All of the actors are encouraged to set their own paces and practice a kind of scaled-down theatrical timing: elaborate pauses, overlaps and small physical tics give the impression of a play settling into its 300th performance, all spontaneity carefully elided. It's dumb dialogue delivered with a smart spin that almost makes it seem interesting.

Especially when Tom Cruise gets to hold his own with Meryl Streep. Cruise has developed into one of our most reliable players of the mentally unstable or downright mendacious, and with his public image shot to hell, why not play a character named "Jasper" -- that most reliable of Victorian cues for villainy? Forget what it has to say about the war, Lions For Lambs is a referendum on star power, with Meryl Streep as Earnest Media Liberal (close enough) and Redford's face frozen in an unenviable permanent grimace. His lips seemingly always about to part, Redford can't shake the air of unflappable amiability and unthinking charisma that pigeonholed him when he tried to go darker with The Candidate, Brubaker and Downhill Racer. No wonder the soldiers get short shrift; the stars are hogging the screen.

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