Dying with an anti-war whimper
Lions For Lambs, directed by Robert Redford
Reviewed by Kaveh L Afrasiabi
Lions For Lambs is conceived as a timely cinematic antidote to the "war on terror" logic of conformism, instilling a new civic virtue in today's America, already saturated by political debates, by presenting an imaginary version of social, political and military realities.
It plays with American conundrums - about the "war on terror", the
role of the media, the fourth wheel of the great republic, and individuals' relations to the "war", despairing about a young generation of Americans who have no utopia and are in dire need of enlightenment.
Redford, also starring as a politically incorrect college professor, is a rebel with a cause attempting a thoughtful approach to film as personal political expression here. Redford has much humanism in him, much like Jean Luc Godard showing a distaste for the culture of consumerism, and presents a direct exposition of contemporary political issues, illustrating the connection between war, militarism and elite political irresponsibility.
However, while it succeeds as a device for political pedagogy, the movie fails on intrinsic aesthetic criteria, a casualty of its own excess ideology and zeal.
Dubbed by reviewers as a dull movie that "plays like a political debate", Lions For Lambs was initially conceived as a stage production and, save the early helicopter scenes, retains its theatrical, or rather "claustrophobic", atmosphere, with a bulk of the movie consumed by pure dialogue, eg, between a hawkish US senator, played brilliantly by Tom Cruise, and a skeptical reporter, played feebly by Meryl Streep. Or, on the other hand, between the left-of-center professor and his students, two of whom end up as army recruits in Afghanistan meeting their tragic fate at the hands of insurgents, representative sacrifical young lambs in the borderless "war on terror".
One wonders: Is there a message here, foreshadowing the ultimate futility of America's military gambit in an inhospitable land that has repeatedly repelled foreign invaders?
German philosopher Martin Heidegger once wrote: "We do not yet hear, we whose hearing and seeing are perishing through radio and film under the rule of technology." No such healthy warning sirens about film are even mildly detected in this anti-war movie that in a certain sense closes the gap between politics and art. This even though its noble, laudatory sentiment is tampered by a multi-perspectival point of view that, in fact, gives the September 11-focused pro-war bloc an edge, given the movie's absence of any brave questioning, let alone debunking, of the official September 11 story. 
Without a firm ground to stand on in the absence of such a debunking, what then is achieved is largely an exercise in futility.
The film's failure is connected, first and foremost, to Redford's inability to confront the problem of the relations between film's artistic criteria and its social and political context. The movie's "mimetic rationality", reflecting the grim reality "out there", is too closely at work, compounded by a technical formalism that deprives it of the "play potential" that could have offset the avalanche of public criticisms about its "boring" content.
This is, after all, a fiction film and not a documentary such as John Pilger's superb Truth and lies in the war on terror, and could have been much better if its denuciatory attacks on the ideas and institutions that propogate militarism through public deceit were even minimally enveloped in character build-up, reasonably imaginative plot, or, as in classic anti-war movies such as Jean Renoir's Le Grande Illusion or Terrence Malick's Heideggerian The Thin Red Line, symbolism.
Instead, what Lions For Lambs offers is a Lacanian mirror of politics, with the pacifist professor, disillusioned reporter, etc, supposely reflecting the real state of mind of Americans. Disconfirmed on its own ground, Lions's subtle critique of the status quo may aspire to a new American ethos, banking on cinema as an emancipatory medium, yet the net result is its recycling of technical formalism, conventional story-telling, and largely monological sermonizing on "doing the right thing". And this while exploiting the power of the American solider as hero, unlike Stanley Kubrick's classic Full Metal Jacket that narratively and ideologically subverted that image (while still clinging to "soldiers as victims"). The only thing experimental about Lions is its unique penchant for the verbal over the visual, reflecting a traditional epistemology that privileges language in the act of being-in-presence.
Little surprise, then, that the audience does not really get to sympathize with the characters on the screen, eg, the mournful expression of Streep as she passes the national cemetry, or the heoric deaths of the two soldiers that is the movie's only allegory, somewhat duplicative of the final freeze frame of the heroes of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, facing death quixotically.
For a population under the constant psychological bombardment of the "war on terror", a prudent anti-war, peace-oriented movie should have taken their fatigue factor into consideration instead of unwittingly adding to it via its own seriousness, signifying what Umberto Eco refers to as "closed text".
A pivotal juncture in the movie, when a call to the senator's office - interfaced with the special-op fiasco in the Afghan highlands - interrupts a lengthy juxtaposition of ideas with the reporter, is the only moment when the movie approximates the status of a plot, but it quickly fizzles by the lack of a follow-up.
As a result, meanings in the scenes are not mediated but rather jump at the audience, and are immediately recognized for what they are, thus neutralizing their emotional and or cognitive impact or efficacy. This is, indeed, the movie's biggest paradox, the fact that its permissiveness with its own brand of politics (of skepticism) mimics the logic of conformism that it critiques, by pointing the audience in one direction even though it does not explicitly answer the questions it poses.
It encourages us to think, to resist political manipulation or consumerist apathy, but, sadly, via a disturbing essentialism reeking of political correctness, eg, through vaguely inspirational rhetoric, it becomes the very epitome of the cult of politics.
The form, style, of disenchantment must go hand-in-hand with the content, and yet this delicate point is forgotten in this movie. What is definitive in the content outstrips a sense of open-endedness and elicits a lazy response, particularly since the "hostile other", in this case the Afghan insurgents, are treated as shadowy figures beyond the reach of comprehension or, perhaps, any empathy.
With so many Afghan collateral victims of indiscriminate bombings, the opportunity to elicit a bifurcated sympathy is lost in this movie, that otherwise boldly treats the larger, more abstract questions of war and conquest.
This sould be disconcerting, if not outright irritating, to the peace movement in the US and abroad, seeing how a splendid opportunity to mobilize the anti-war impulse is nullified by a gifted director who should have known better than to prioritize politics over artistic form, tantamount to what German philosopher Jurgen Habermas refers to as "internal colonization of the life-world", though in this case by a politics of resistance succumbing to an illicit instrumentalization of aesthetic reason.
Note 1. For more on this see, David Ray Griffin, Debunking 9/11 Debunking.
Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy (Westview Press) and co-author of "Negotiating Iran's Nuclear Populism", Brown Journal of World Affairs, Volume XII, Issue 2, Summer 2005, with Mustafa Kibaroglu. He also wrote "Keeping Iran's nuclear potential latent", Harvard International Review, and is author of Iran's Nuclear Program: Debating Facts Versus Fiction.
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