SIX CHARACTERS IN SEARCH OF AUTHORITY
In the best directing of his career, Redford explores national disunity with plenty of star power for backup
By Armond White
If Tom Cruise, Robert Redford and Meryl Streep can be said to represent Hollywood, then their joint venture, Lions for Lamb, deserves to be called the Hollywood movie of the year. It brings to bear Cruise’s star wattage, Redford’s conscientiousness and Streep’s artistic authority (all sanctioned by The System) upon the Iraq War, the issue that has awakened the film industry’s usually dormant social conscience. At only 88 minutes, Lions for Lambs’ succinct good points challenge all the claptrap positions of the war debate; thus the surprise of the year.
Taking a stand against the war has become as radical and conservative-tweaking as putting on a Halloween costume, but here’s a vehicle where movie stars can humanize all positions. Lions for Lambs is largely a series of conversations—between Berkeley history professor Dr. Stephen Malley (Redford) and apathetic pupil Todd Hayes (Andrew Garfield); hotshot Senator Jasper Irving (Cruise) and D.C. journalist Janine Roth (Streep); and two Iraq War enlistees, Malley’s urban-bred former students Ernest and Arian (Michael Pena and Derek Luke).
The war becomes more than a point of controversy but a focus of contemporary American conditions: Malley’s nearly exhausted liberalism, and Irving and Roth’s slick, well-practiced careerism represent the established influence of the older generation. The younger generation is represented by Todd’s privileged lassitude contrasted with Ernest and Arian’s anxious, poor kids’ efforts to matter.
You could call this concept “Six Characters In Search of Authority.” Screenwriter Matthew Michael Carnahan reveals the emotional and political chaos of diverse citizens who feel besieged, powerless or unaroused (to use an indictment from Bulworth, a similarly perceptive Hollywood movie). Carnahan, whose The Kingdom script was an unfocussed mess, explores the crisis of national disunity—a more complicated tactic than blaming a crisis in leadership.
These six characters opt to lead themselves; taking personal responsibility is domesticated political action. And these actions are explained through words, torrents of dialogue that should not be dismissed as “talky”—especially when expressed with these actors’ precise emotions. In fact, the roundelay of ideas, feelings, significant looks and telling gestures fulfills the essence of what’s cinematic.
In the best directing of his auteur career, Redford turns Carnahan’s original script into a modern-day version of what Sergei Eisenstein called “Intellectual Montage.” Not sneaking-in pinko-Clooney cynicism, but an upfront visual dialectic. The three group exchanges (in a faculty office, a Senator’s inner sanctum, a secret military mission) alternate the passions of those who observe the war, monitor its execution or actually fight it; their opinions and provocations have head-spinning fervor but are always rooted in character.
When Malley laments that Todd has lost his idealism (“Where did that kid go?”), the cut to Sen. Irving implicitly suggests what motivates a young go-getter politician. As you think along with the film’s presentation of ideas and watch characters caught in moments of moral and political tension, Lions for Lambs starts to articulate the stress of this political era. Redford and Carnahan’s intellectual montage creates movements of mind and spirit.
Every conversation builds understanding—of how the older characters lived through political history (Malley and Roth both recall the Vietnam era with pride that turns to regret) and how the younger characters retrace that history with either new skepticism or hope derived from a different, contemporary source. It’s a crucial post-9/11 observation of behavior: “Terrified but willing yourself to take the next step,” as Professor Malley understands.
Ernest and Arian are Latino and black youths whose sense of citizenship reproves white Todd’s casual apathy (without romanticizing ’60s student disenchantment). This good sense of class differences extends to how the professor, the journalist and the senator each see their jobs: “Professors aren’t teachers, they’re salesmen,” Malley says to Todd, explaining how education combines knowledge and ideology. “You don’t trust us?” journalist Roth taunts the Senator who answers, “I trust you,” personalizing the collusion between first and fourth estates.
This aristocratic candor (never divulged by today’s mediacrats) perfectly contrasts Ernest and Arian’s battlefield-grunt camaraderie: “Get to me!” one wounded soldier cries to the other. “Rescue’s coming!” his friend assures. It shows their military training and their trust—a recognition of faith and intelligence greater than the usual Hollywood view of Iraq war soldiers. Then Redford’s montage of ideas and experiences comes full circle with Malley’s defense of his lost students’ militarism: “I didn’t agree but I revere the reasons they went.”
This view of citizenship, dissent and political choice confirms the idealistic thrust of Redford’s career.
Lately, Redford’s been looking for new voices and visions of the political landscape that don’t repeat his ’70s films. Spy Games was one attempt, as was The Last Castle, but those films tended toward genre-movie oversimplification. This time he’s found a bonanza in Carnahan’s colloquy of occupations. It’s the year’s most ingenious screenplay.
Lions for Lambs takes its title from an age-old parable about wartime sacrifices. Its theme is humanistic, not partisan, yet its political concern is specific: to capture a democratic kaleidoscope of American attitudes. Carnahan’s Shavian arguments simply repeat The Times’ “Week in Review” or Daily Kos but reveal how loaded phrases like “mission accomplished” or “He’s re-energizing his party the way Kennedy infused Democrats” express the contradictory aspirations of our polity. The film’s young performers effectively embody these aspirations (they’re the best showcase of workaday actors since Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center).
But the three stars rate salutes. Streep and Redford have aged into people who look experienced, in fact, troubled by age and awareness. Still-youthful Cruise aces diplomatic charm; he’s quick and fanatical but emboldened by the same fearful awareness. Each star brings compassion to their character’s failings and this ambivalence—a greater truth than any mere argument—is key to political and humane survival. Cruise, Streep and Redford do what movie star-artists are supposed to do.