Saturday, November 10, 2007

Lions for Lambs: an essential lesson

Well, the roaring trademark MGM Lion that opens “Lions for Lambs” may indeed provide a fitting visual (and perhaps legal) irony for the message of this very political and, for some audiences, intentionally preachy film. This is Tom Cruise Mapother ‘s first film since essentially taking over MGM’s United Artists unit ("Cruise/Wagner"). (Paramount's sacking of him always seemed silly.) When you have Mr. Cruise ‘s position, you can get the money to make the movie you want, even with money in publicly traded companies. The movie's title refers to the idea that troops who bear the sacrifice are like lions, and their political bosses are the lambs. The film reminds us a couple of times that we used to have a military draft (although Cruise's character officially denies that it is necessary now) -- one can imagine the lecture the audience is going to get.

But this really is a valuable film, too. Cruise and director Robert Redford definitely have something to say, and it certainly falls on the conservative side of personal moral debate. We do need to hear about this, a style of "moral thinking" that was taken for granted a few decades ago but not very often articulated openly today. I’m not sure how that fits into the philosophy of scientology. Cruise has acted in films with important political messages before, such as “A Few Good Men” and “Minority Report.” Some people, in this film, however brief (88 minutes), will question the storytelling style. The film seems to break the "rules" (of screenwriting), at first.

Or does it? There are three segments of story that seem disconnected. TV journalist Janine Roth (Meryl Streep – she seems to have walked across the set from “Rendition”) debriefs GOP Senator Jasper Irving (Cruise) in his office. 10000 miles away, in Afghanistan, two Army rangers (played by Derek Luke and Michael Pena "(World Trade Center)" are wounded and pinned down on a mountaintop as Al Qaeda fighters close in, and their unit is hopelessly trying to find and protect them (in a chopper mission that went wrong). Then, in California (it looks like Stanford), political science professor Stephen Malley (Robert Redford) chats with and pressures likable but seemingly apathetic student Todd Hayes (Andrew Garfield).

Gradually, the threads come together a bit. Irving’s press release could jeopardize the soldiers. And the soldiers had joined the Army because of Malley’s moral idealism, and that of course makes us wonder what Hayes will do with his life (an obvious possibility for a UA sequel to this film).

Still, most of the time this seems like three separate films, and they could have been made that way. The military portion could have been a compelling film by itself.

I have, myself, considered constructing a film with my “do ask do tell” material, and the settings would probably convey substantially similar messages. And that brings us to the moral points of the film.

Redford and Cruise obviously believe that moral social justice depends on the actions of individual people, and their willingness to take responsibility for what they consume and share the burdens of others. That is, after all, how much religious moral teaching (in almost any faith) unwinds. This contrasts with the approach of the Left, which is to see social justice in terms of the actions of groups. In particular, the college students (Hayes in present day, and the two soldiers in the past flashbacks) get challenged to prove that they will take responsibility for the “privilege” that they have and the lives they want to lead.

There is one flashback where a mandatory national service proposal is presented (the film really gets preachy here, but it’s necessary). Give up a whole year of college (the junior year) for a year of service, and make it practically compulsory. (What’s ingenious is that the time taken is nullified by making the number of years of school one less.) The burdens of the world (the poor education, particularly the inner cities, the poverty, drugs, and international political instability) are shown – correctly – as interconnected like dots. Redford's professor character and the college student get into a discussion of how many of the people who join the military and go overseas to take all the risks are the most disaffected and marginalized at home, where as the "haves" often take their freedom for granted. He tells the boy that he is now and adult, will make decisions that define the rest of his life, and hints that the boy should taste "real life." This reminds me of a similar admonition to Richard Pimentel (Ron Livingston) in MGM's concurrent "Music Within" (dir. Steven Sawalich) in which a professor tells debater Richard to taste the world like a Don Quixote (Pimentel's book "Windmills") and Richard winds up almost deafened in Vietnam before going out to fight for the disabled. Some particular political buzzwords (“no child left behind” and “don’t ask don’t tell”) don’t get specifically enumerated, although it takes little imagination on the moviegoer to fill them in mentally.

Cruise’s character is a bit of a hawk, and articulates compelling arguments for aggressive policies from the Middle East through Iraq to Afghanistan. At one point, he says that Iran is allowing Wahhabist Sunni fighters to transit the Shiite country to join the Taliban in Afghanistan (a true “axis of evil”). He mentions the possibility of a nuclear Iran, and neglects to mention that Pakistan is already nuclear and may be unraveling as the movie premiers. He also says that Al Qaeda has blackmailed Pashtun tribal leaders and family patriarchs in Pakistan-Afghanistan border areas into offering up their male ons to become fighters. It is also known that sometimes kids of some families have been sent overseas (to Europe) to protect them from such pressure.

The movie tries to make most of the moral points it can think of, however. At one point, Janine’s boss reminds her that she is 57, and has a mother that needs 24 hour care (a reference to filial responsibility laws, that could become a hot issue soon).

Visually, the film is slick, if melodramatic. The camera focuses on details at times, such as the shorthand on Janine’s pad, and Garfield is sometimes presented with some unusual camera angles, as if to make the viewer wince at what would happen if he joins the military himself and then makes a real physical sacrifice, just as have so many troops in Iraq.

It's interesting that today, Tim Russert interviewed Tom Brokaw on MSNBC ("The Greatest Generation" and now "Boom! Voices of the Sixties") and Brokaw mentioned the growing objection to student deferments from the Vietnam draft during the 60s. He also repeated the quote, "The personal is political."

This might be a good place to mention the "Hire a Hero" website.

Pay your bills, and pay your dues.

Update: Nov 12

Rick Sincere has a writeup of the Virginia Film Festival on his blog, starting Nov. 1 and continuing for several posts; go here.

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