Sunday, May 01, 2016

A Few Good Soldiers

One hallmark of bad (movie) writing: all the characters sound like extensions of the same style of writing, or bad attempts to write a wide variety of characters, when in fact they all sound alike.  Now, I hate to badmouth Michael Moore, but his forays into fiction haven't been all that successful, and 1995's Canadian Bacon may be his only stab at it.  In fact, it seems to be, upon closer inspection of his IMDb page.  In roughest terms, John Candy and his group of characters at the low end, and Kevin Pollak and his characters at the high end, make roughly the same anti-Canada arguments, in similar expository style.  If nothing else, it was a casting coup for Moore, but unfortunately for him, it didn't lead to other fiction movies.  But he did go on to do Oscar-caliber documentaries!  He took the right fork in the road for the people at large.
The same cannot be said for Harvey Miller/Skolnik, whose last directorial effort, Getting Away with Murder, apparently actually killed him.  A fan of the poster for The Usual Suspects, Miller/Skolnik tried to cash in on the spree of lesser movie work in the 1980s that Dan Aykroyd was responsible for, and gave Jack Lemmon a meatier-than-usual movie role to play... that's right, that of a former German concentration camp guard hiding in plain sight in an American suburb.  Now, I wasn't able to watch the whole thing, alas, but what little of it I saw seemed to be several like-minded people having the same conversation about... whatever.  Now say what you will about The Last Supper, but at least it seemed to have slightly different characters in it, on both sides of the political divide within it!
But that last paragraph was about Hollywood insiders on the fringe of directing.  Lions for Lambs was directed by Robert Redford, well within the mainstream... at least, he used to be.  He re-teamed with A River Runs Through It cameraman Phillippe Rousselot, doing decidedly opposite work this time.  Redford seems to have taken a page from the Tony Scott playbook on this one, using multiple cameras to film the scenes, at least with Streep and Cruise.  I don't get that vibe from the scenes with Redford and the new Spider-Man, anyway.
Which brings me to the script.  I don't expect big things from the Carnahan boys, and needles to say, my expectations were met.  The script here is almost like something Dave Barry would come up with, if he were tackling the George W. Bush Iraq war in such a way.  Lions for Lambs tries to be Babel, apparently, but with slightly less interaction.  Spoiler alert: the story involves the connection between two soldiers who were buds from the same poor neighboorhood, apparently.  They bonded in high school, and in one of Professor Redford's classes; apparently, political science.  I'm assuming the crucial class they took with him was about a 200-level course or so.
Now, these two students are called Finch and Rodriguez.  I just saw Rodriguez in The Martian!  Dayamn.  As for Finch, well, he was in one of the Captian America movies, but not in the same one with Redford.  As part of their big project for this political science class, they show their official draft notices, and not just to show up the fat kid who looks kind of like a young Jordan Klepper.  No, they actually join the army to fight Al-Qaida, and they end up going all the way to becoming super badasses on a Seal Team Six-type special forces unit.  Say what you will, but that's commitment.  And it's been a while since the jaded professor had that caliber of student.
These two are part of a super-secret operation, and Senator Tom Cruise gets real-time updates of their exploits.  He has a meeting with big-time reporter Meryl Streep, and he tries to assure her that the surge is working... something like that.  If you watch the movie, you'll see that Cruise/Streep and Redford/student have practically concurrent conversations about more or less the same thing: these two students who volunteered to serve their country.
I mentioned the dialogue earlier.  Frankly, Redford should know better than this, but he sucks his teeth as best he can to get through it.  The dialogue was a little too cute for me, and Andrew Garfield does way too good a job playing a smart-ass college student.  I'm assuming he's privileged, as he's risen through the ranks to become president of his fraternity.  The student seems to have made his decision in terms of what the true purpose of college is: is it to read books you otherwise wouldn't in high school?  Or is it about making a better, more connected class of friend who will give you the keys to the kingdom of the Good Life?  Frankly, that's what you go to an East Coast college for (scoff to myself).
Okay, I'll give the screenplay a little more credit.  It's slightly better than his other 2007 offering, The Kingdom.  Both are about the Middle East, and both involved Hollywood pretty boy Peter Berg in one way or another.  It anticipated the decline of the college system as we know it, but it didn't give credit to the internet and all the online colleges it would inspire.  The screenplay also sort of anticipated that, if we left Iraq before putting the proper democratic infrastructure in place, something else far, far worse would take its place.  It just didn't anticipate the name "Isis."  And was it just me, or did Tom Cruise seem more like John Edwards than someone who was close to the Bush/Cheney inner circle?
There may have been another insight or two, but in general the dialogue was too cute, and too punctuated with one-liners for my taste.  And somehow, I get the feeling that the ultimate fate of the two soldiers in question was Redford's touch, and not the screenwriter, but maybe I'm wrong about that.  At the time, if you were looking for a scathing rebuke of Dubya's foreign policy, you probably would have been disappointed.  But Hollywood certainly tried during that era.  Oh, how they tried.  Historians are still trying to put together the complete list of how they tried.  2008's Eagle Eye seemed to be sort of a culmination, but no amount of semi-omnipotent AIs would get those awful people out of office.

-so sayeth The Movie Hooligan

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