Monday, October 22, 2007

London Film Fest Day 6 - LIONS FOR LAMBS

It seems like Hollywood tries to tackle the fall-out from the Global War on Terror in a new film every week. But I didn't think I'd watch two movies in two weeks written by the same man, Matthew Michael Carnahan, and starring the same actress, Meryl Streep. The first one written by Carnahan was the subversive "CSI-Riyadh", THE KINGDOM. He follows this up with the new Robert Redfod drama, LIONS FOR LAMBS. LIONS FOR LAMBS also stars Meryl Streep as a liberal journalist. She morphs into a CIA neo-con in RENDITION, also currently on release. Added to this, Brian de Palma's Iraqi war drama, REDACTED, is also playing at the London Film Festival.

Of the GWOT films on offer, Robert Redford's LIONS FOR LAMBS has the most intelligence and the most honesty. It doesn't sugar-coat anything. There are no easy choices and no happy resolutions. Rather, it gives us a snap-shot of the US political debate through three inter-weaving scenarios.

The first segment is a conversation between Streep's liberal reporter, Janine Roth, and a presidential-aspirant neo-con Senator called Jasper Irving. (As befits the current Hollywood fashion, we know Tom Cruise's character is a Senator because he's wearing a three piece suit.) The scenes between these two actors are absolutely fascinating to watch. Both actors are on top of their game in this film and the dialogue is fascinating. I love that Carnahan doesn't make Irving the sort of imbecile gung-ho right-winger that liberals love to hate. Rather, Irving is a slippery customer, selling his "by any means necessary" theories with charm and wit. Most of all, he's reasonable. He's candid about the regime's mistakes but has a new strategy to "win the war" (and the presidency). Roth is unconvinced of course. She's heard it before, during Vietnam. But she is forced to admit the fourth estate's complicity in the Iraqi war. The question is, will she sell another story?

Even as Irving's giving Roth the exclusive on the new military strategy, it's failing in the field. Two idealistic young soldiers (Michael Pena and Derek Luke) are stranded in the Afghan mountains, under-fire from the Taliban. In flashback we see that they want to war in order to become engaged with the key issues of their day, and to return home college-educated veterans with a good chance of "being heard". I was convinced neither by their acting, nor by the special effetcs of this segment. Most importantly, I was unconvinced that anyone would join a war on such a pretext. The movie just didn't sell it to me at all. Moreover, I'm not sure you even needed this segment. The dilemmas of the film could have been as easily portrayed by the Senator-Journalist segment and the Professor-Student segment.

This final segment features Robert Redford's liberal college professor using the example of the two soldiers (his former students) to persuade a young privileged kid (Andrew Garfield) to stop being cynical about political engagement. The kid represents the person in all of us who wants to just put their head down, make the monthly mortgage payment, and let the corrupt politicians get away with murder just so long as it doesn't touch our lives. The professor is our conscience, which tells us that "all that is necessary for evil to triumph is that good men do nothing". This segment is well acted but again the script fails to engage us.

And this is, I think, the whole problem with this film. It feels too dry - too much like we're eavesdropping on a college debate. It reminded me a little of reading Camus' plays, insofar as the characters and narrative are hostages to a philosophical exercise. The problem is that while a movie can instruct us, it will be far more successful in doing so if it engages with us on an emotional level. Otherwise, I can save my money and read the literature on the relevant issues. The power of cinema is, surely, that it can make us empathise with characters and play out our inner-debates? But LIONS FOR LAMBS did not allow me to engage with it. I was demoted to the role of eavesdropper.

LIONS FOR LAMBS played London 2007 and goes on release in Belgium, Australia, the Czech Republic, Germany. Hong Kong, Israel, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Russia, Singapore, Slovakia, Brazil, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Iceland, Mexico, Norway, Spain, Sweden, Turkey, the USA and the UK on November 9th. It opens in Argentina, France and Hungary later in November and in Italy on December 14th. It opens in Japan on April 19th 2008.

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