Talking Movies

November 17, 2019

From the Archives: Lions for Lambs

From the pre-Talking Movies archives.

A Republican Senator unveils a new strategy for the War in Afghanistan to a liberal journalist. Simultaneously we follow two of the soldiers involved, while their politics professor explains their lives to a disillusioned student.

Wow, Tom Cruise has gotten old. This will be the first thing that strikes you when you watch Lions for Lambs. Gone are the cheekbones of Top Gun behind some newly flabby jowls as the Cruiser heads inexorably towards 50, at which point his career as a heroic leading man will abruptly end. It’s like a rule, ask Michael Douglas about it. The second thing that will strike you is that this film is a disguised play. There are three fixed locations, each of which features two characters talking for an hour, and we cut between these with some flashbacks. Michael Pena needs to get a new agent or just move to Broadway because following on from his World Trade Centre two-hander with Nicholas Cage he’s once again immobilised in a god-forsaken locale heroically musing on patriotism and other issues with a colleague. Screenwriter Matthew Michael Carnahan has defended this staginess. He claims a lot of dialogue is needed to engage with the War on Terror on any meaningful ideological level.

Tom Cruise as the ambitious Republican Senator Jasper Irving and Meryl Streep as the cynical liberal journalist Janine Roth clash to good dramatic effect but you can’t help feel that while Cruise is given some good arguments he’s never going to be allowed to win. Robert Redford’s arguments as the Berkeley professor Dr Malley are hampered by his own screen image, particularly 1972’s The Candidate which opined that getting elected was possible only by abandoning all your convictions. Warren Beatty campaigned for George McGovern in 1972 while Redford justified apathy. Nixon won that election by a whopping 23% so it’s a bit rich that Redford now hectors young student Todd Hayes (Andrew Garfield) about political engagement. The most involving segment of the film involves Lt Col Falco’s (Berg) desperate search for his two missing soldiers and his anger at bad political leadership.

Carnahan also scripted last month’s war on terror thriller The Kingdom which was very emotionally involving but couldn’t maintain the intelligence of its opening. This film seeks to be that edgily intelligent all the way through but Carnahan’s level of political insight is only that of Michael Moore’s at the end of Fahrenheit 9/11. The worst victims of American capitalism are first to volunteer to defend that very system against foreign attacks. This film never adequately explains the logic of that choice. Pena and Derek Luke’s highly intelligent students abandon college to fight in a hopeless war. Redford deserves praise for his emotionally engaging depiction of military camaraderie but Carnahan’s script, while interesting, does not persuade us that the choice of these young men was anything but suicidal at worst or deeply misguided at best.

3/5

October 25, 2019

From the Archives: Rendition

From the pre-Talking Movies archives.

An Egyptian man resident in America (Metwally) is the victim of extraordinary rendition to Morocco where a CIA agent (Gyllenhaal) ‘observes’ his interrogation. In Washington the man’s wife (Witherspoon) tries to find out what has happened with the help of a friend (Saarsgard), an aide to a key Senator (Arkin).

Oh My God, it’s Syriana: Part 2. Once again a small army of talented actors stand around waiting for someone to throw them some dramatic meat they can get their teeth into. And again with the baffling idea that constantly intercutting between nothing happening in four different stories is an artistically impressive substitute for developing any of those plot-strands. This film may have some use as a compendium of torture techniques, from water-boarding to electrocution via naked beatings, but if it’s meant to be anything other than a CIA training manual it fails badly.

The CIA does not torture people of course. It merely hands them over to people who will. Of course Jake Gyllenhaal’s Agent Freeman has a crisis of conscience as he ‘observes’  Fawal (Kojak lookalike Yigal Naor) torturing the unfortunate Anwar. Of course Reese Witherspoon runs up against a brick wall in Washington as Peter Sarsgaard is warned off by his Senator with the line “If you want to be the guy who never compromises, go join Amnesty International!” But the logic of the French General in 1960s classic The Battle of Algiers has become unnervingly convincing, if you want to beat an enemy this hate-filled you have to go to extremes too, or you will lose.

The tricksy structure of the film revealed at the end of the film is deeply pointless. At first as it’s telegraphed well in advance it seems like a leap into poetic metaphor for the cycle of violence, then you think that it’s flat out fantasy and makes a nonsense of the whole film, then you slap your thigh and go ‘By Gad Sir I get it!’ and realise that it’s still lame even though it makes sense. It’s also quite easy to miss if you’ve dozed off as is highly likely by that point. If you have nodded off on waking you should just point at the screen, mumble “You’re the Canadian” in a stoned manner, and leave. You won’t have missed anything.

1/5

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