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Thursday, October 25---------It was quite a coup for the London Film Festival to snag the World Premiere of the hotly anticipated LIONS FOR LAMBS, the latest directorial (and acting) effort of the Sundance Kid himself, Robert Redford. Heading an all-star cast that includes Tom Cruise and Meryl Streep, the highly topical drama is Redford's pointed commentary on the zeitgeist of wartime America, the complicity of politicians and the press, and the indifference of the general public who are not being asked to sacrifice their sons and daughters in a mission that remains unclear and unresolved after nearly six years of fighting. The film premiered as a Times Gala at the Odeon Leicester Square on Monday night and will open the AFI Los Angeles Film Festival next week.

Redford, whose liberal politics and affiliations to the Democratic party are no secret, has cast the film as a kind of dialectical debate between a set of established characters. The screenwriter Matthew Michael Carnahan (whose other Iraq War film THE KINGDOM is a jingoistic exercise in vaulted militarism) has created dramatic parallels between the concentric circles of a California university, insider Washington DC and a desolate mountaintop in Afghanistan to tell this complex and compelling story. Redford directs himself in his most appropriate role in years, as  somewhat weathered but still idealistic political science professor at an elite California university who cousels his students to shake off their apathy and their selfish desires for professional careers to get involved in the issues of their times.....mainly the war on terror that officially began on September 12, 2001. Most of Redford's scenes are played in the professor's office, as he has a dialectical debate with a once-promising student (Andrew Garfield) who has since become apathetic and focused only on the easiest way to cruise towards a life of monied status (or as the film refers to, "building the big house with the big fence around it to block out the world's problems").

At the same time,  a conservative Republican senator, a rising star in his party, played by Tom Cruise, has summoned a leading television journalist (Meryl Streep) into his inner sanctum to give the reporter an exclusive on a "new strategy" for winning the war in Afghanistan. The scenes between Cruise and Streep crackle as the two debate the lessons of 9-11, the mistakes made in the Iraq War and the complicity between politicians and the press to "sell" the war to the American people. The senator's new strategy is actually played out in the only battle scenes of the film, where two young soldiers (pointedly one latino and one black man) are stranded on the top of an ominous mountaintop in Afghanistan while the enemy closes in. What we discover is that these two soldiers were former students of Robert Redford's professor character, who were inspired by their teacher to "get involved" in the epic battle of their generation, although not exactly in the way that the liberal professor had in mind.

Although many critics will focus on the partisan nature of the project and its scathing finger-pointing at the Bush administration (in fact the title refers to the courageous soldier "lambs" who are sent to senseless slaughter by the devious "lions"), what struck me most hauntingly were the speeches given by the Redford character about the need to engage, to get involved, to sacrifice. While pundits may draw the parallels of the Iraqi quagmire to the Vietnam conflict, the major difference, according to the film, was that the movement to protest the war and to eventually bring about its end was not determined in the hallowed halls of the nation's capitol or the power corridors of the national media, but on college campuses, with students who had everything on the line. In the Iraq War, which draws upon a voluntary army mostly made up of the sons and daughters of the poor and working class, that sense of national sacrifice at all strata of society does not exist. In fact, in contrast to earlier conflicts, the current Administration does not ask for sacrifices, but encourages Americans to show their loyalty by being more avid consumers. And what is worse.....the relative silence from the public gives the perpretators the license to commit the most heinous acts IN OUR NAME. The kharmic repercussions (not to mention economic, social and political ones) have yet to be determined.

Although the film posits all sides of the debate in a somewhat fair manner, the problem with films that use dialectic as their source material is that the dramatic integrity suffers. Everyone speaks as if they were making a speech, and while that would be most appropriate for the grandstanding senator, it falls much flatter when it comes out of the mouths of the university professor, the apathetic student or the crusading journalist. The people are reduced to position papers and their humanity is lost in the crossfire of the debate. That said, LIONS FOR LAMBS is an important film for our times, which tries to come to grips with the conficting motives of a polarized nation, and preaches (and that is surely does) that looking the other way is the most insidious form of collaboration. Better to fight for what you believe in, whichever side of the political fence you are on, than to stand around and let your destinities be determined by the megalomaniacs and manipulators. And that is a message whose timeliness is current and relevant as today's newspaper headlines. To visit the film's website, log on to:

Sandy Mandelberger, London FF Dailies Editor

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