“Dulness is ever apt to magnify.” — Alexander Pope
I’d somehow managed to avoid the promotion for this one and went into the film blind; I didn’t even know Lions for Lambs was directed by Robert Redford until the credits rolled, and only learned after being assigned the film that the cast included Tom Cruise (nice maneuver, Dustin). As to plot outline, I had nary a clue. This always makes for an interesting viewing experience, one that might possibly be ever so slightly less biased than usual, and more receptive to what the director’s laying down. But no matter how tabula rasa our condition when the screen lights up and the iridescence starts to dance, it’s never long before we begin tagging, comparing and categorizing the production (as we humans are programmed to do), trying to slot it into one of the many drawers we all keep lodged in the backs of our brains.
It’s my shit luck that, about an hour and ten minutes in, Lions for Lambs slid into the Crash drawer, which slammed shut with a shudder I’m sure my fellow audience members felt (they definitely heard my snicker). As over-used and -abused as that Haggis blot is around here (bear with me), still I’m grateful to Crash for succinctly codifying that particular counterfeiting to which American studio film is increasingly prone. In one convenient monosyllable I can communicate to readers a host of wretched qualities: windy, self-important, moronic, bungling, baroque, Oscar-bait. And as usual, it’s all disguised by solid performances, hot-button topics, extended dialogue, and a veneer of competence, which is guaranteed to flame the viewer’s rage when she realizes someone attempted to beguile her, once again, with The Serious.
Crash certainly wasn’t the first Hollywood picture to insult us with its Flecknoe-esque impotence — that title has just become shorthand for movies that make a whole art out of those off-putting moments found in films like Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan and “Band of Brothers.” As a foreigner, I risk a keel-hauling for suggesting as much, but somewhere along the way, I think America lost its ability to do war movies — or “important” movies of any stripe. The few exceptions that manage to come out of the U.S. can’t hold back the deluge of celebrity-larded films that purport to be significant, eternal and moral, but which are really just little cinematic canapés that feed actors’ and directors’ egos and offer nothing of substance to audiences so used to starvation, they can find a feast in a crumb. I want to lock Eastwood, Redford, Penn and current-day Scorsese into a theater along with Haggis, Hanks and Spielberg, and pump out the same fume of Starbuck’s tang and L.A. smog that wafts off their own blustering boardroom misfires, until these purveyors of what passes for Meaning suffocate on their own fetor. Where these mooncalves see weighty, I see a complete lack of cultural awareness beyond the axiomatic; I see output as clichéd and constipated as my non-revelation that Hollywood fucking sucks, and as routine as a caffeine-addled Pajiba reviewer whacking a mediocre studio picture upside the head with a thesaurus. Crash is just the apotheosis of rank witlessness, and thanks to its bottled stink, films like Lions for Lambs (which replaces racism with propaganda as the social bête-noir we’d never recognize without Redford’s help) are much more easily scented.
Redford and writer Matthew Michael Carnahan (who also scripted this year’s The Kingdom) give us Jasper Irving, the Republican senator with Tom Cruise’s leering Magnolia-face, and Janine Roth, Meryl Streep’s veteran reporter whom Irving tries to deploy in his War On Terror. They give us Professor Stephen Malley (played by Redford himself) and Todd Hayes, a promising student Malley tries to extract from apathy with a winch. They give us, lastly, Arian Finch (Derek Luke) and Ernest Rodriguez (Michael Pena), idealistic grunts trapped on an icy Afghan ridge after falling out of a Chinook. The scenes in various offices — the senator’s, the professor’s, and Roth’s editor’s — are heavy with dreams of My Dinner With Andre as two characters exchange volleys of wit and what’s supposed to be Deep Meaning on Momentous Subjects such as war, media collusion, political power, racial and economic inequity, and personal engagement.
Cruise is reliably officious, Redford expectedly smug, and Streep gives off her signature exhaustion that, next to Redford and especially Cruise, touches on convincing. However hackneyed the characterizations, there’s nothing wrong with the performances (unless you’ve always flinched from Cruise’s cheese-eating and now certifiably manic countenance). It’s Andrew Garfield, though, as Malley’s cocky undergrad, who injects the one halfway fresh performance into the mix (or, like Redford, knows how to manage his one note to good effect, and gets away with it because he’s relatively unknown). But performances can’t save a pandering script or redeem a general insufferableness, and it’s too bad that the dialogue is corroded by its own triteness, because Redford allows it to unspool at its own leisure; too few studio filmmakers dare to make their scenes so conversational, and for a while I was digging the chutzpah, however preachy.
I also dug Carnahan’s attempt to construct a theme about how perspective is crucial to power. The “God’s Eye View” conceit is an old saw popularized centuries back by Alexander Pope, but its presence makes the first half of the film a little richer than the second (where the conceit sputters out — inconsistency being the first hallmark of incompetence). It emerges in the Senator’s office, where Irving reminds Roth that she’s in a “lesser position” because she lacks his knowledge about classified details, and talks about the importance of NATO forces taking high ground (drones and satellites are not “omniscient” enough). Roth, meanwhile, reminds Irving that a view of the past is crucial to understanding the present when she notes that the U.S. army, in its desperation, is resorting to the same tactics that lost them Vietnam.
Back in Afghanistan, Lt. Col. Falco (Peter Berg) tells his troops they’re taking the mountain peak for its intel potential — a 360-degree view of the region they can’t afford to let the Taliban take first. Later, as Falco directs the rescue operation aimed at retrieving his two ridge-bound grunts, he curses the snowstorm that’s obscuring visibility; as a battle cry, “I want to see as much as I can, as long as I can” has a figurative as well as literal job, here. Carnahan’s obvious awareness of the power of information, and its almost divine reaches, might have helped iron out the rumpled political tissue that passes for a script, but the theme is clumsily handled, and it’s not enough to bind all these several parts together to give the film the cohesiveness and meaning — the perspective — it so earnestly wants to convey. — Ranylt Richildis
(Originally published on Pajiba.com on November 10, 2007.)