Saturday, November 17, 2007

Lions for Lambs (2007)

Even though the trailers made it look annoyingly preachy and didactic (you could say, Haggis-esque), I'd have to call this one a must-see. In its own way, Robert Redford's new film seeks to transcend the polarizing national debate over the War on Terror and find new, common, American purpose. Apologies if my review ends up sounding Armond White-esque but I think he's right about this one in his own review.

In an anonymous California University, an old-school liberal professor (Robert Redford) interrogates a well-off but lazy student about the nature of his cynicism. In Washington, a promising young Republican Senator (Tom Cruise) gives an exclusive interview to an established reporter (Meryl Streep) about a new strategy to defeat the Taliban. And in Afghanistan this strategy is implemented using two Marines (Derek Luke and Michael Pena), both former students of Redford's. It's a talky movie, but it's never a boring one because of the constant stimulation of strong dialogue, acting, and ideas, and because the stakes are simply too high to be boring. Redford lays it all out on the table: Western Civilization, as led by the U.S. government, is in a war against angry medieval idiots. What are you going to do about it? In the movie's most potent moment, Cruise literally asks Streep and by extension, the audience, "Do you want to win the war on terror?" a question which hangs in the air, never resolved. The big surprise of the movie isn't that it takes strongly liberal positions, but that it challenges liberals to move beyond the miserable failure of the Bush administration and look forward to envision success on the global stage with whatever President takes over on Jan. 20, 2009 - success that I don't think that selfish isolationists like Dennis Kucinich or Ron Paul have the vision to conceive of.

For a while now, I've been wondering how it's possible for a movie to truly be progressive and actually have an impact at the same time, when so many well-intentioned movies simply play to their own choirs or are ignored by the public. Even though it looks like Lions for Lambs is going to be the latest one to be shrugged off, it deserves a lot better, especially in its central question: what are you, the American viewer, comfortable at home, going to do? Anything? This is classic Hollywood liberalism at its best, urging the complacent viewer out of his or her torpor and into their best possible self, the kind of thoughtful, principled progressive liberalism seen in movies from High Noon to A Man for All Seasons to Good Night and Good Luck (even though I'm sure Armond would probably disagree with all three of those). Redford is telling us that we need to get beyond the sloth that cynicism breeds and get off our butts, simple enough.


cjKennedy said...

Jeff, you've managed to convince me this one is worth a shot. It's not top of my list right now, but maybe 5 or 6 and I hope to get to it before it slips into oblivion.

I assumed all the same things about it you seemed to. Glad to hear it rises above all that.

Jeff McMahon said...

Thanks but honestly, please take me with a grain of salt. It's a good movie but not really a great movie, because a great movie would have made all the same rhetorical points within a stronger dramatic context instead of just having characters sit down and talk to each other. I like the movie a lot because I recognize it as saying things that I don't see any other movie, or for that matter, cultural authority, saying. But it also has its own specific set of limitations.

Piper said...


I have yet to see the movie - mostly because I have no interest. It feels a bit like Cruise trying to get back some kind of respect. But aside from that you make an interesting point about winning the war, even after Bush's administration.

What hits me most about the trailer is Cruise's question "do you want to win the war on terror". It seems like a black and white question, but really it's not. Under the current administration, that means that you have to give up a lot - the biggest part being personal privacy. I don't subscribe to the idea that I must give up everything for us to win the war against terror - especially since it's a war I don't believe we will ever win.

To me asking the question do you want to win the war on terror is like asking do you believe in family values. It's an empty question that if you don't answer quickly, your patriotism is called into question. It asks for a knee-jerk reaction which is what I believe we have been doing for the past few years.

Noah said...

I definitely agree with you on this one, Jeff. This movie blows In the Valley of Elah out of the water because it actually tries to have a real discussion about a serious issue. Who is right on this issue? Clearly the Cruise character makes a mistake and he believes his own ego, but it doesn't really have an answer for an alternative to winning the war on terror except to stay informed and strive to make a difference if YOU think there needs to be a change.

I think the weakest part of the film are the scenes of Derek Luke and Michael Pena waiting for their attackers. (SPOILER) It just seemed totally not worth it to have that whole story thread just to watch them die and it makes the point of the film too on the nose. I would have liked to have seen them survive and achieve those dreams they had, which I think would have made the film a bit more gray.

Jeff McMahon said...

Let me elaborate. The question "Do you want to win the war on terror" is something similar to "When will you stop beating your wife?" in that it frames the situation in a particular, not necessarily accurate way and forces the responder to accept the questioner's paradigm. So on a certain level, I reject the basic notion of a 'war on terror' as essentially absurd and counterproductive.

All that said, it doesn't let Meryl Streep's complacent liberal character off the hook when she can't answer Cruise's question. I do wholeheartedly want to destroy the radical Muslim networks that were responsible for Sept. 11 and currently are undermining the governments of Iraq, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, and have filled the voids in places like Somalia and the Palestinian territories. So I would say that what Redford is doing by boldfacedly posing the question in his movie is trying to awaken that sense of righteousness, of internationalist activism, in his liberal audience, which is currently veering towards isolationism. It may well be that the greatest failure of the Bush administration could turn out to be driving the country so far away from neocon-style internationalistic realpolitik that we go too far the other direction into isolationism and introversion, which is good for nobody.

Re: Pena and Luke's characters, they basically are only in the movie (SPOILERS) to die, and for us to feel bad when that happens. Not really surprising coming from a director who a few years ago made The Legend of Bagger Vance, although at least this time his minority characters have some more agency and individualism. Their fates didn't bug me as much as they did you, Noah, but I would agree: it's not a perfect movie.

Piper said...


I don't believe that the war on terror is absurd. Stating that there is a 'war' on terror is saying that there will eventually be an end, which I don't see ever happening. There will always be terrorists within the world - and they may not always be radical Muslims. We have only declared a War On Terror because it has hit are own soil.

The problem with the question of "do you want to win the war on terror" is that it gives the current administration and any administration past that a big fat blank check to do whatever they want. Which leads to things like the Military Act and the Patriot Act. And then if you want to end terrorism are you suggesting that we should continually have a strong military presence in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan as well as Somalia and the Palestinian territories? With that thinking, what's to strop Isreal from saying they don't like the KKK because of their hatred of Jews, so their military will infiltrate the United States and have large concentrations in Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas as well as several other states.

The fact that we didn't get involved in the war on terror until we were attacked is by nature an isolationists view. And Ron Paul does not subscribe to an isolationist viewpoint, he is an upholder of the constitution. He doesn't believe we should be in Iraq because it's unconstitutional for us to be there. Which leads me to the most ironic point and that is that Bush won in 2000 mostly due to his anti-nation building stance. So the ideology of not wanting to be everywhere all the time is not just limited to liberals or isolationists. It's not wanting to be world police which the question "do you want to win the war on terror" leads to.

Jeff McMahon said...

I don't think you're following my point. I will write more later when I have more time except to say that I am no fan of Ron Paul, colorful character though he be.

Jeff McMahon said...

Okay: my point is that I think that the phrase 'war on terror' has apparently become such a charged buzzword that it distracts from the actual point that Robert Redford and his collaborators are making - have you seen the movie, Pat? The idea of a 'war on terror' is absurd because terror is a tactic and will never go away. The more specific idea of our current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will indeed one day end, for better or worse, and those tangible conflicts are what matter, and what Lions for Lambs is concerned with.

Since your Israel/KKK theoretical argument is so far removed from Lions for Lambs I really don't want to get into it. I will say, however, that the idea that we should withdraw from Iraq because 'it's unconstitutional for us to be there' is, I would say, both incorrect and immaterial. I was completely opposed to the invasion in the first place since it was clearly based on a false pretext, but the facts on the ground now are a completely different situation. My basic position is that I'm no fan of nation-building as per the neocon ideal but that, since we're in Iraq, we owe it to the Iraqis to do whatever is necessary to restore stability to their country. If stability would be increased by us not being there, great.

Piper said...

As I stated before, I have not seen the movie and knew full well that maybe I was getting in a little too deep so for that I apologize.

I understand your point and the reason I blathered on is that I felt mine was being missed as well. Didn't mean for this to get into a political debate. I'm not trying to sell you on Ron Paul my point was that you were wrong in labeling him an isolationist.

Actionman said...

Pissed I missed this one. Wanted to see it. I have liked almost all of the recent Iraq war movies (to some degree) and I still really want to see this one.