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‘Lions’ goes out like a lamb

POSTED: January 31, 2008 5:03 a.m.

The Movies on Terror trend continues.

Here I’ve been defending Hollywood, of all things, and giving them credit for handling a serious, ongoing political debate as impartially as they ever have, and along comes a piece of self-righteous tripe like "Lions for Lambs."

United Artists, revived by Tom Cruise and producer Paula Wagner, are packaging this movie as a political thriller. But it’s mostly a series of conversations meant to dramatize the real debate over U.S. involvement in Afghanistan.

Professor Stephen Malley (Robert Redford, who also directed the film) tries to convince a current student to be more politically involved. Sen. Jasper Irving (Cruise) tries to convince journalist Janine Roth (Meryl Streep) that a new military initiative is the way to win the war on terror. In flashback, Malley tries in vain to convince two students (Michael Peña and Derek Luke) not to enlist in the Army.

For brief stretches, the filmmakers manage to make those debates compelling, as if we’re eavesdropping on a lively, relevant give-and-take. But it doesn’t take long for the movie to devolve into a Democratic treatise against the Bush administration.

And lost in all this yakking is the central event of the story. Malley’s former students find themselves wounded and trapped on a mountainside by Taliban fighters. These two soldiers are brave beyond description, and Peña and Luke turn in the movie’s two best performances.

But rather than dwell on that, we watch the big-name actors grandstand. It’s exhausting and disappointing, considering the enormous talent on screen.

I sympathize with Redford and company, because one of their primary targets is apathy, especially among college students. I am surrounded daily by people in their late teens and early 20s who couldn’t care less about politics and don’t know a thing about U.S. involvement in Iraq or Afghanistan or anywhere else.

Perhaps the best strategy to combat apathy, though, is not to pound people with smug lectures.

Furthermore, why pick on the young ’uns? Current 18- to 24-year-olds are no different than their elders in not being adequately informed or passionate about U.S. foreign policy. I am not in that generation, but by the end even I felt like asking Redford, Streep and Cruise where they got off being so condescending.

"Lions for Lambs" is what you would get if Michael Moore made a fictional film about Iraq and Afghanistan: You know exactly what the arguments will be, so anyone not already against Bush will not see the film. So the movie is one big exercise in preaching to the choir.

I recently suggested two criteria to judge War on Terror movies. Does the film treat the topic with due respect and does the film accurately represent both terrorists and Americans? "Lions for Lambs" fails the first by depicting Republicans as the only party to blame for our mistakes in the Middle East. Democrats not only escape scrutiny altogether, but there isn’t a single Democratic politician in the movie.

It’s so one-sided, in fact, that my second point barely applies. The enemy here is Cruise’s caricature of a conservative congressman, not terrorists. The Taliban are faceless, and our fight against them is reduced to whether a particular military strategy will work.

If you’re in the mood for an argument, see "Lions for Lambs." If you want something truly thought-provoking, try the video store.



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