Monday, October 08, 2007

You MUST see this film

It has taken some time, but Hollywood is finally taking the gloves off and punching hard at the administration with unveiled force. Buoyed by artists, actors and producers passionately committed to promoting a serious political message of desperate straits and a need for public activism, this newfound courage has resulted in at least one film that deserves highest praise both for artistry of cinema, depth of emotion, and complexity of message. The film to which I refer is called Lions for Lambs, and will be distributed for general audience on November 9th and stars Meryl Streep, Tom Cruise and Robert Redford (who directs as well). To use a trite but appliacable cliche, if you see only one non-documentary film this year, make it be this one--you won't be disappointed.

It is interesting to see the evolution Hollywood has taken over the last couple of years. Whereas before we were treated to thinly veiled allegorical and not-so-allegorical critiques of Republican ideology and American foreign policy in films such as V for Vendetta, Syriana, Children of Men, or even Star Wars Ep. III: Revenge of the Sith, it seems that this fall we are starting to see an explosion of films that are explicitly targeted at and based in current events. In addition to Lions for Lambs, there is also the upcoming Rendition, a film starring Reese Witherspoon, Jake Gyllenhaal and Meryl Streep about NSA wiretapping, harsh interrogation techniques and extraordinary rendition; In the Valley of Elah starring Tommy Lee Jones, Susan Sarandon and Charlize Theron, which looks at the psychological impact of the war on soldiers returning home; and The Kingdom currently in theaters and starring Jamie Foxx and Jennifer Garner, which explores the complications of American foreign policy in Saudi Arabia and beyond. It will be interesting to see how the public reacts--both at the box office and in the general culture.

Not having seen The Kingdom, In the Valley of Elah or Rendition as of yet, I cannot speak for their merits. I can, however, speak for Lions for Lambs. I was invited to see the film at a small private screening at MGM's tower in Century City: the producers are showing the film to select members of the political establishment, as well as the traditional and new media. Mickey Kaus of Kausfiles at Slate had been invited to see the film but couldn't make it--and after our BlogTalkRadio debate a couple of weeks ago he decided to refer the invitation to me.

I'm glad I was invited, and it is clear why the producers are showing people this film in advance with great confidence. Lions for Lambs is an extroardinary film that deals unflinchingly with our current political predicament, covering nearly every aspect of societal failure and distributing blame across the board in a plea to the American public to get out of their fantasy-land doldrums and get involved in the political process. The film follows three threads: Robert Redford as a UCLA political science professor attempting to motivate a privileged, apathetic but brilliant student; two young soldiers surrounded by enemy forces in a botched "new strategy" mission in Afghanistan; and Tom Cruise as an ambitious, talented, warmongering Republican Senator giving Meryl Streep's seasoned political reporter exclusive access for a story on the "new strategy."

It is a testament to the beauty and complexity of the film (and the subtle, incisive quality of the performances) that no one comes away looking good from this film, and yet no one comes away as a blackhearted villain, either. Tom Cruise's Republican Senator is perhaps the most despicable character in the film--and yet, he comes across less as venal and corrupt than he does arrogant and wilfully ignorant of history in his desperation to find a solution to the intractable foreign policy problem he and his Party helped create. Robert Redford's professor is perhaps the most likeable, and yet the consequences of his influence have mixed results, and we are left to wonder whether he himself might not be capable of doing much more to make a difference. The film provides no easy answers, or even easy targets; while there are a few important public policy points that I would quibble with (removing forces from Afghanistan is painted as equivalent to removing them from Iraq for some strange reason, and invading Iraq was painted more as a product of post-9/11 hysteria than as the direct result of neoconservative malice aforethought), the overall effect remains complex, powerful and mostly on target.

The painful lesson of the film is that the greatest evils are those that we do just in the name of getting by and going along: the apathy of students who fear a lifetime of debt and figure that their lives will be unaffected by whether they attempt to make a difference or not; the near irrelevance of educators ensconced in their institutions; the corporate media hierarchy serving up entertainment rather than news because it helps feed the bottom line; the reporters themselves unable or unwilling to report real stories for fear of their jobs; the soldiers and generals simply acting on the orders of civilian politicians not qualified to be ordering them; and the politicians trying to get re-elected while supposedly making the best of a botched situation.

The film's title is taken from a quote relayed by Redford's character and attributed to a German commander from World War I, stating that the British soldiers were like lions, but that their bravery was wasted by British commanders who were like lambs. The reference was, of course, to the American servicemen and servicewomen in Iraq and Afghanistan whose heroism is being wasted by cowardly and incompetent civilian "leadership" here at home--and betrayed by the apathy and cowardice of the American population at large, and by the Democratic political opposition (though the film only barely touches upon the last point). The parallel is strikingly apt, and the call to action, while late at this point entering the fall of 2007, could not come at a better time as we prepare for the Iraq Supplemental fight in January of 2008.

It is a rare thing for a fictional film to achieve the heights of complexity and clarion call to action of a progressive documentary--but this one gets the job done in a way that I believe will be palatable to the average American in both Red and Blue areas. The drama, editing and riveting performances are the sugar that may help the medicine of activist change go down a little easier for the general public. Every little bit helps when it comes to affecting public opinion and driving change: I encourage everyone to see this movie when it comes out in November, and to tell all your non-political friends to see it as well.

If you're interested, the trailer for the film can also be found here.

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