Despite its reputation as a hive of blame-America-firsters whose luxury homes were (to paraphrase right-wing commentator Glenn Beck) well and truly immolated, Hollywood hasn’t been especially responsive to national crises in decades. And given the box-office fates of A Mighty Heart, In the Valley of Elah, Rendition, and (probably) Lions for Lambs, it might be 30 more years before some liberal executive says, “Hey, let’s put our movies where our mouths are.” The new antiwar pictures are all clunks and wind, but they’re full of fervent acting and affectingly rough—they lack the usual studio overpolish. Robert Redford’s Lions for Lambs is the clunkiest, windiest, and roughest of the lot. Most of it is dead on the screen. But its earnestness is so naked that it exerts a strange pull. You have to admire a director who works so diligently to help us rise above all the bad karma.
The film is a call to engagement in the face of a catastrophic war, the architects of which are criminally indifferent to the lives being lost. It jumps among three different story lines—although jumps might be the wrong word. Plonks? Thuds? In D.C., Senator Tom Cruise proclaims to investigative journalist Meryl Streep a bold new strategy for winning the war on terror. (“We made mistakes … How and why is not the issue. Now we have to move forward.”) Moving forward consists of sending a small plane full of soldiers over snow-capped Afghanistan mountains, where it’s promptly shot up, and where two nonwhite Americans (Michael Peña and Derek Luke) hurtle to Earth and face off against a horde of Taliban fighters. Somehow the two are connected to California professor Robert Redford, who has summoned slacking-off student Andrew Garfield to his office to discuss the young man’s failure to live up to his talent and social responsibilities. (“They bank on your apathy, they bank on your willful ignorance … How can you enjoy the good life when Rome is burning?”)
As usual with this sort of message movie, I kept wanting to shout, “Right on!,” but the words somehow came out as groans. (“Right on!” is not a phrase that can be groaned.) Cruise was obviously cast to give the b.s.-spouting Republican pol some weight, but he can’t help telegraphing that he doesn’t—as an actor—believe a word he’s saying. He’s patently phony, a pip-squeak upstaged by his teeth. Redford’s teeth are even more distractingly big and white, but at least he believes what his character is saying. Streep gives her thesis lines some subtext. She uses her head voice—piped through her nose—to suggest she’s thinking, and she knows how to keep busy. (I bet she’s really taking shorthand.)
The title is from a German general’s World War I observation of English soldiers bravely sacrificing themselves by the tens of thousands, which Redford solemnly quotes to the unengaged student at the climax of his argument: “Never have I seen such lions led by such lambs”—i.e., know-nothings who send others out to fight and die. To which I say, Right ohhhnnnerghhhhhhhhhhhhh.
It doesn’t feel good to bash Redford—a true do-gooder in an age in which the term is a slur, the definition of uncool. We cut documentary filmmakers more slack, especially when atrocity footage wipes the smirks off our faces. Two new docs— War/Dance and Darfur Now—search for hope in two of the worst places on Earth. The first, directed by Sean Fine and Andrea Nix Fine, centers on children in a remote refugee camp in northern Uganda. They have seen, in many cases, their parents hacked to death, their villages destroyed. They are still surrounded by carnage. In the course of the film, they rehearse for a national music-and-dance festival in the south, where they’ll compete against bigger and better schools—schools in which everyone isn’t an orphan. There are too many competition docs these days (Spellbound opened the floodgates) with built-in cliff-hangers and manufactured inspiration. But the suspense in War/Dance transcends the quest for the big prizes. For these kids to sing and dance with all their hearts, they need to go to a place in themselves that should be closed down forever. The glories of War/Dance are torturously won, and all the more glorious for it.
Ted Braun’s Darfur Now is a more forthright—and prosaic—call to arms. But looming over all—though unseen—is the presence of mythic demons: the Janjaweed (“devils on horseback”), allegedly government-supported, who swoop down on men, women, and children. Braun has six diverse protagonists, among them a woman whose baby was killed and who has now joined the rebel army, a Los Angeles activist, and the International Criminal Court prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo (whose career in Argentina has taught him what it means to bring government war criminals to trial). Like it or not, though, the documentary is dominated by actor Don Cheadle, who flies with his buddy George Clooney to The Hague, and who stands with Clooney behind California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger as he signs a bill divesting the state’s pension funds from companies that do business with the Sudanese government. That sounds like the plot of an Ocean’s Eleven sequel—and the depressing subtext is that even with detailed proof of ongoing genocide, it takes movie stars to get to the movers and shakers, and to get worthy movies like this one into theaters.
In Bee Movie, a bee voiced by Jerry Seinfeld (who conceived and co-wrote the film and whose character appears in almost every scene) doesn’t want to end up just another hardworking drone in the hive. So he heads out into the world with the “pollen jocks,” gets stuck to a tennis ball and whacked around (the animation is thrillingly three-dimensional), and falls for a florist with a cute little body and the voice of Renée Zellweger—who manages to sound both mousy and sultry. The film will be huge. It’s busy. It’s kinetic. It’s a treat for kids. But like much of Seinfeld’s work outside his TV show, it’s impersonal. It doesn’t come from anywhere interesting.
Seinfeld and Larry David are like Paul McCartney and John Lennon: They made better music together than apart. On their sitcom, Seinfeld was the neurotic but basically still center, and David’s alter ego, Jason Alexander’s socially inept, self-centered George, balanced Seinfeld’s weird passive-aggressiveness. On Curb Your Enthusiasm, David screws up every minor interaction with his argumentativeness and prodigious lack of empathy. It’s bracing in small doses, but how much can we squirm before we start to chafe? The show could use Seinfeld to take the edge off. Seinfeld certainly could: Alone, he’s remarkably edgeless.
The best movie opening this week is Joel and Ethan Coen’s No Country for Old Men, a faithful adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s downbeat thriller, which I wrote about at length before its New York Film Festival opening. You can find that piece here (along with my blog, the Projectionist), but here’s the gist: It’s a near masterpiece.
The film opens with lonely Texas vistas of desert and mountains, and plaintive narration by Tommy Lee Jones as an aging sheriff who stares with incomprehension at the horrors the young’uns inflict upon one another in these godless times. The horrors to come are certainly formidable. No Country for Old Men centers on a likable trailer-park loser (Josh Brolin) who stumbles onto a scene of slaughter in the desert (Mexican drug smugglers shot to pieces along with their dogs), discovers a suitcase filled with millions of dollars, and decides—as dumb guys often do in this sort of movie—to make off with it. It isn’t long before he’s tracked by Mexican assassins and, more chillingly, a psychopathic Terminator (Javier Bardem) who reflexively murders thugs and bystanders alike with the kind of air gun used to blast the brains out of cows.
No Country for Old Men is dominated by Bardem and his Prince Valiant haircut, basso-Lurch voice, and dark, freaky stare in the extended foreplay before his killings. No one, not even Jones’s sheriff, has comparable weight, and so, in the end, cruelty, chaos, and resignation swamp everything—including the Coens’ evident delight in their crackerjack thriller set pieces and soulfully weird actors. That’s not the kind of delight you discern in McCarthy, whatever you think of him, and the film’s climactic whimper might bring you up short. I think it’s a cosmic bummer, but we can argue about that after you see the movie.
Lions for Lambs
Directed by Robert Redford. MGM/UA. R.
Directed by Sean Fine and Andrea Nix Fine. Thinkfilm. PG-13.
Directed by Ted Braun. Warner Independent. PG.
Directed by Simon J. Smith. Dreamworks. PG.
No Country for Old Men
Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen. Miramax. R.