"If I must choose between righteousness
and peace, I choose righteousness."
President Theodore Roosevelt
(a quote framed on the wall of Tom Cruise's Senator's office)
"Freedom of opinion, freedom of debate and dissent, that's
what democracy means, but it's all been shut down now
and it's 'If you're not with us, you're against us,' and we
don't even have to talk about how dangerous that is
and where that leads if it's not corrected."
Director/Star, Robert Redford
Lions For Lambs is a bold and worthy attempt at some correction even if its effectiveness could turn out to be tragically moot. Not one who needs to engage in these issues (certainly no politically apathetic, young American soul) will care a jot and that, to use the ugly Americanism, sucks big time. And it's the ordinary Joe in American society that needs to enter this debate - they wield the power (or so our democracies tell us). And let's not forget the West Wing's rather savvy pronouncement - "decisions are made by the people that turn up..." Apathy will yield Bushes, Senior, Junior, burning or otherwise. Personally I see wisdom in some 'other' wise. It's the end of 2007. I wonder if Hillary Clinton will make history next year? But will her presidency be any different? Those sorts of questions fuel the apathy...
Lions For Lambs has a triptych structure and all three strands unfold in real time (and it's a short movie for such a subject at 88 minutes for the US market and 92 for the UK). The three strands are: (1) an apathetic but gifted student is steered back into making a difference by his liberal political professor; (2) 60s dissident reporter turned corporate hack, gets a scoop from a Republican senator with eyes on the prize and (3) two men of conscience (ex-students of the professor) fall and jump out of a special forces helicopter over Afghanistan's mountianous icy wastes and try to repel advancing Taliban soldiers while suffering from the impact of the drop. All the ingredients are there and to be frank, there was no way on Earth I was not going to be sympathetic to this film. But is it any good? Redford's credentials are in place. He's politically switched on as a film-maker and even as a mere actor (in his own critical and youthful words, "sissy boys"), he can still produce very relevant work. Please check out Three Days of the Condor as a pertinent example. His heart and mind both seem to be in the right place (liberally speaking).
His movie is slick, well acted, very straightforwardly directed and is chock-a-block full of debating launch pads. Yes, it's a 'talkie' movie but then Transformers wasn't intended to be biting political criticism... And sometimes that tumbleweed lack of political bite is not a good thing. From my point of view, the debating was the most compelling aspect of Lions. The hook to get younger viewers into the cinema is the strand of 'action' (CG helicopters in a fated mission in Afghanistan). It is capably handled and you care a bit about these poor, idealistic and broken bastards waiting for the Taliban to reach them but on more than one occasion I thought that this 'actioning down' was the price you pay to get people to pay attention to ideas (that normally do not come with gunfire and explosions). The time frame is very nicely presented (Redford doesn't hold us by the hand in terms of flashback recognition etc). It helps that the two heroes are black and Hispanic - both marginalised and having fought to learn what some privileged kids take (and take and take) for granted.
This is precisely 'my' kind of film; one in which there are enough ideas, a guy to hiss, a guy to cheer and a movie that asks questions of its audience. Hey, it's Hollywood so it's never going to be profound or explicitly insightful (movies, as Redford notes, are now all about the bottom line) but it's a dent in the mountain of apathy where some brave souls can start the ascent. Meryl Streep is particularly noteworthy as her liberality (tied up and kept in check by her job as reporter for a news channel awash with celebrity non-stories) leaks out in facial mannerisms and the control Streep has over this kind of expression is faultless. When I see the movie again I will keep my eyes on Streep's face at all times. She really is something special.
As the film is meant to generate and encourage debate (IMDB's posters seem to have a particular loathing for the movie which doesn't surprise me and perhaps it should), I'll now lob a few ideas over the high walls.
Most of us like to belong (to families, to clubs, to political parties, to social networking sites, to the church, to squads and platoons, to social circles of like-minded souls). We crave and bow before that simple human need - to be accepted and valued by others. And if like-minded souls spend all their precious time with only each other, the entire scaffold of informed dissent collapses. Ideas stay swirling ineffectively in their own pools, unable to migrate from one to another, impotently and resolutely not informing and affecting. 'Preaching to the choir' has, within its clichéd shell, a grain of the finest grit just waiting for time to turn it into a pearl. If you preach, you communicate ideas. The cliché accepts that you are doing so in front of a congregation who are there to be preached at. We just have to remove the church (and its attendant fantasy) and the act makes so much more sense.
But. We have reduced human political discourse into polarised grandstanding. Are you 'right' or 'left'? Are you 'with us' or 'against us'? The oleaginous senator (played darkly, enthusiastically and well by Tom Cruise) in Redford's movie, asks "Do you want to win the war on terror?" As a question (about which the character further elaborates "It's the quintessential question of our time...") it is utterly ridiculous. I was reminded of the court case in which the defendant was asked a "Yes" or "No" question and said he was unable to answer it because the question was loaded and an answer would condemn him unfairly. The judge ordered him to answer and he turned to the bewigged adjudicator and asked "Yes, or no? Have you stopped beating your wife?" That got the point across with real élan. This ridiculous question (the mainstay of the movie's trailer) is taken very seriously by Mr. Cruise but it is facile beyond belief. There is no end to a war on terror therefore there is no victory to be had (not even nukes can draw a grisly line ending this 'war'). All there is, is political power leaking from the skewed wet knot of almost perpetual population panic. There will never be another 1950s in American history. The golden age of peace and prosperity is now rigid, locked in history's amber. All we, and our children have to look forward to now is religious fundamentalism, like soap, squeezing out from more and more right leaning clenched fists. And hoping to be just the statistically lucky ones.
The problem America has with their latest enemy is that it is not geographically bound. America has gone to war on an idea and that's a war that can never, ever be won. Hammer a water bomb (with shock and awe to compound the problem) and everyone gets soaked. Didn't any of Bush's advisors work out beforehand that invading Iraq and Afghanistan would foster so much hatred that America's name would be lower than mud worldwide? It beggars belief because of a reckless assumption. We assume those that lead us are smarter than us because we put them there when of course this is simple minded tosh. Newsflash. These people are narrow minded idiots with power and the smarts and control of a dog on heat. They do what they do not out of a high minded political ideal, but out of a self-serving, self deluded fantasy of doing good (for themselves). They have the moral high ground of a chronically depressed mole but the power to dig forever. It just keeps getting darker and darker.
Ideas - even utterly ridiculous ones - like we should all live our lives from some medieval (emphasis on the 'eval') text books - are not to be beaten. Science can banish their claims but adherents live on because following the doctrine - to some - is the only way to fight back against the 'great Satan' as the US is known amongst its many enemies. There is a shot that Redford missed in his own movie. Cruise nips out to answer a call. Streep (the reporter) checks out his photos (it seems that senators proclaim their successes in photographic form). There is a picture with Bush, one arm around Tom. Redford should have had that photo behind Tom when Mr. Cruise was banging on about fighting followers of a medieval religion. Bush is a born again Christian. Ahem? Do the math! As Stephen F. Roberts once said: "I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours."
No one (and I may be speaking for a lot of people here but this generality is pretty easy to accept) and I repeat, no one wants to die violently at the hands of men (it's always men) who believe that the extermination of those who adhere to 'other' religious faiths (not Islam) and non-religious faith, is a necessary part of his own path of righteousness. There should never have been a word like righteousness. Its meaning is almost pornographically selfish and egotistical. Consider Teddy Roosevelt's quote above prominently featured in the film - obviously placed as a defiant criticism. He would rather impose his God-given will violently on people than have peace. I'm sorry but that dizzying arrogance, that fucked up fantasy of self-divinity will produce more misery and suffering than even both Bushes have managed. And that is really saying something.
It's clear that Redford loves his country (and has done rather well in it) and is appalled and saddened by the direction in which Bush has steered it. He actually said that he's now "in a state of mourning". What surprises me is the way in which most information and evidence is gathered these days - TV, internet, newspapers. We all base our arguments and defend viewpoints from 3rd hand received information. Very few of the sources of this information are personal truths eked out from experience. We all know how ex-Army types like to play on these sorts of backgrounds lending credence to a political push - although it didn't help Kerry much. We need to know our leaders know what they are doing. We don't, of course. Neither do they. We need to expunge the word 'embedded' from journalism for a start. I'll end with a doozy from Mark Twain:
"If we do not read the newspapers, we are uninformed. If we read the newspapers, we are misinformed..."
Just how the hell are we going to get our planet back?