In his acerbic 1972 political drama “The Candidate, American prodigy Robert Redford played an idealistic democratic senate candidate, Bill McKay, who ultimately wins after compromising his principles and “telling people what they want to hear.
At the end of the movie, the flabbergasted, newly-appointed senator gazes absentmindedly at his campaign engineer and utters the iconic last line of the film: “What do we do now?
“The Candidate was one of several high-profile movies released at the peak of the Vietnam War and the beginning of the Watergate scandal. It offered no resolution to the issues of war or corrupt American politics. This fundamental slant is what separates the best of the 70s political dramas from the current crop of Iraq war/war on terror flicks.
The latest, but certainly not the last, example is Robert Redford’s first directorial effort in seven years “Lions for Lambs. The star-studded film bears the names of Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep and Redford along with a stellar supporting cast.
“Lions is released under the tag of United Artists, a studio founded by Cruise and partners after Paramount abruptly ended his contract last year.
Judging by the sour critical reaction and the measly $6.7 million opening debut last Sunday, the film is officially the first dud for UA and the fourth consecutive major flop for war pictures, following in the footsteps of “The Kingdom, “In the Valley of Elah and “Rendition.
“Lions tackles the war from three interlaced dimensions in the form of three events that take place at the same time in different time zones in the span of one hour.
The first presents the standard political viewpoint through an interview between respected TV news reporter Janine Roth (Streep) and the young, swaggering republican senator Jasper Irving (Cruise). The cocksure neo-con senator attempts to sell a new strategy for the Afghanistan war to cut the root of terrorism fostered by Iran.
The strategy fumbles the moment it begins. Special Forces friends Arian (Derek Luke) and Ernest (Michael Peña) – representing the practical side of the war and its causalities – find themselves stranded in the snowy mountains of Afghanistan following a fatal ambush by the Taliban.
Arian and Ernest are the former students of political science professor Stephen Malley (Redord). In the third segment of the story, Malley tries to induce his smart, but cynical student Todd (Andrew Garfield), who has lost faith in the value of activism and American politics, to change the course of his life.
The premise and narrative structure of the film looked promising at first. Besides, Redford, in his short career as a filmmaker, has never directed a bad film. Despite its good intensions, “Lions emerges as a simplistic lecture that clears its throat to say nothing new.
The center of the film is the Streep/Cruise segment. Cruise’s savvy Irving is the archetypical, almost caricature liberal conception of Republican Congress members. Irving is a self-righteous, opportunistic charmer with a naïve, primitive military scheme that is made to seem like a revelation.
He clearly disregards the lives of the troops and applies a “whatever it takes creed in dealing with the war. Coupled with his foul lust for winning the battle – which he at one point indirectly acknowledges as a mistake – makes him the film’s obvious villain.
Irving is the kind of crooked republican statesman the American and international media has plastered on its channels since 9/11. The code of ethics many right-wing party members adhere to is questionable, to say the least. But if Hollywood has started to crawl under the skin of Arab terrorists to understand their motivations and mentality, why not do the same with republicans?
Hollywood and the dominating liberal media’s condescending disregard and vilification of the party’s followers is one of the main reasons Rupert Murdoch’s Fox media empire has become increasingly popular among Americans. “Lions, and its brethrens, does not dare challenge these conventions, opting for the easier path of stereotyping.
In fact, simplification is the key word that defines the film. The characters’ actions and the blunt solution offered by scriptwriter Matthew Michael Carnahan (of “The Kingdom ) are too definite and impractical to believe.
Malley’s sole advice for the bitter Todd, and the audience, is to engage in political activism because “it’s better to try and fail than not try at all. It’s the same ideology Arian and Ernest adopted when they enlisted in the army.
Both have been subjected to discrimination and poverty from the same body they decide to serve. They don’t agree with the war but firmly believe that the only way to change the system is by infiltrating it.
Malley continues to support them even though he does not approve of their unbelievable strategy. According to him, it’s more patriotic to lead a radical path than do nothing at all. Malley represents the widespread liberal stance of supporting American troops regardless of their opposition to the war.
Perhaps the only gripping scene occurs when Irving accuses the media, represented by Roth, of helping the administration sell the war to the public, contesting its legitimacy only after the damage was done.
While the moment contains no startling revelations, the pointed manner Cruise delivers his lines is a reminder that the media is equally responsible for the war.
For the most part, “Lions is a talky picture. Two thirds of the film takes place in closed offices and the talents of the three principle mega stars are rarely put to test.
Redford exhumes his usual charisma. Streep, despite the limitations of her role, shines through her subtle reactions and wounded sense of defeat. The occasionally effective Cruise saves the film from turning into a big cliché. His scrumptious performance shows us a man whose demeanor renders him accessible while his true intentions, like all real politicians, are never revealed.
Michael Carnahan’s script is quite dry and, frankly, boring. It features none of the meaty, playful dialogue of a Mike Nichols or David Mamet film. The three segments don’t flow naturally and constantly feel staged.
In an insightful article, New York Times critic A.O. Scott explains that the reason behind the failure of today’s war pictures stems from a lack of a clear resolution. His argument is valid, but perhaps the essential problem is how these films frame a prickly, morally ambiguous issue within the context of a fixed, bounded drama.
Despite their drawbacks, other releases – and forthcoming ones including Brian De Palam’s “Redacted and Nichols’ “Charlie Wilson’s War (starring Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts) – attempt to explore the subject of the war from a different outlook. “Lions for Lambs is satisfied with doing nothing but nodding its head with the war’s opponents.
“Lions for Lambs is currently screening at Ramses Hilton, Galaxy, CityStars, El Salam Concorde and Green Plaza. and Green Plaza. Check cinema listings for more information.