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Fathers and Daughters:
In Their Own Words
by Mariana Cook
(Discounted Paperback from Amazon)
"Lions For Lambs"
This is little more than a three-panel political polemic designed to send a message to Washington and score some points for the anti-Iraq-war contingent. Emphasis on "little more." It's two thirds windy diatribes and one dramatic sequence to support the ineptness of administration and pentagon war strategies. Which is fine for a political rally, but I don't go to the movies for political pamphleteering, even if I might agree with the ideas it promotes.
Panel #1: Senator Jasper Irving (Tom Cruise), a young congressional freshman, is the front man for the administration's change in strategy in their losing war. From now on, small, highly trained Ranger units will take positions at forward points on high ground in order to observe and kill insurgents. To announce the already launched new military doctine in as favorable a light as possible, he calls in the reporter (Meryl Streep) who was most kind to him when he was running for office. Ostensibly to pay her kindness back he is granting her an exclusive interview in hopes of a supportive story. But, her sympathies go in other directions doubtful, however self assured the presentation. She tests and challenges his ideas and comes away unable to make herself the mouthpiece for the diversionary political ploy. The architects of the war are going to have to do better if they want to take the nation's mind off their failures to date. "How do we know that this will work any better than what we've done so far?" she asks.
To give that question immediacy, Panel #2 is the first military action in the new operation. As seen from the perspective of two soldiers helicoptered in to a frigid mountain top and from the base of operations at headquarters. The mission is launched by Lt. Col. Falco (Peter Berg, a bit beyond his credibility) and is observed on monitors with all appropriate tension. Things go wrong as soon as the Ranger-filled chopper descends to its LZ, or Landing Zone. Machinegun fire splits into the body of the plane, hitting some troops and causing Arian Finch (Derek Luke) and Ernest Rodriguez (Michael Pena) to literally fall out. Rodriguez gets the worst of it with a badly injured knee. But the worse-yet part is the approach of the insurgents and their wily taunting, waiting for the Americans to run out of ammo. In the larger picture, the Pentagon and political honchos now have to face the realization that their assumptions about beating the enemy to the high ground by getting to it before the winter thaw is as wrongly conceived as everything else they've done.
Panel #3: Finch and Rodriguez were students of Professor Stephen Malley (Robert Redford) who, going against his recommendations to give up their notion of volunteering for Iraq, chose to follow their own lights. What this man is all about is finding students with above average potential and inspiring them to do something meaningful with their lives. He's willing to spend long hours in his office and in coffee houses banging that drum. Now, having lost the round with Finch and Rodriguez, he's stalwartly debating with his next project, graduating Todd Hayes (Andrew Garfield). This is a seemingly endless one-office, two-man debate about getting engaged in what the professor thinks is worthwhile instead of the usual committment to the life of leisure.
The three panels are intercut to provide pacing and avoid the reaction that there's a mighty amount of dialogue. While the military operation does afford some drama, it's not enough to balance against the reality that the whole thing amounts to a diatribe. It should be no surprise that such an illustrious and important figure in filmmaking as Robert Redford who, besides a reknowned body of work as an actor created the Sundance Film Institute in Utah for independent filmmakers, could attract an A-list ensemble of players. They are pretty much faultless in terms of the material supplied by screenwriter Matthew Michael Carnahan. The most interesting elements for me are (1) Tom Cruise's ideal casting as a brash idealogue who could never conceive of himself or his political thinking as imperfect, and (2) observing Streep bringing all her skills into the room in order to give sparkle and meaning to the looong [SIC] confrontation.
But, in the end comes the inescapable feeling that this film ought to come with a warning that it has a lot in common with a NASA wind tunnel. Let what I've written here serve as a warning that you're in for talk, talk, talk. Despite that, though, I'd guess that a lot of people are going to be sore that they had to pay money to sit through a series of debates, which they will have done because of an excellent cast's marquee value -- but it's not what most of us sign up for when we purchase a movie ticket. A fairer release would have been on TV as a public service film.
~~ Jules Brenner
(Mark Isham, composer)