I hated Crash. Every pure and noble intention of writer/director Paul Haggis rushed off the screen with a blind and righteous fury that scorched hearts and minds. Those opposed to the plea for racial (dis)harmony as a natural effect of America’s melting pot had evidence to prove their arguments, while liberal blacks, raw from their own guilt-imposed self-flagellation, got salt rubbed like salve on the wounds.
As a critic, I felt like a dummy for recognizing the obviousness of its literal-minded rant and then for being offended by its unrealistic narrative plot to bring every single racial and cultural element into conflict simultaneously. Shit, man, we live in a world where it takes divine intervention or a sporting event to bring black folks and white folks together, let alone all the different groups Haggis had crashing into each other.
Now Robert Redford comes along with a stripped-down version of Crash. Let’s call it Crash 2: The Sound and the Fury. Or we could simply use the working title Redford and mercenary screenwriter-for-hire Matthew Michael Carnahan (The Kingdom) have given us: Lions for Lambs, which comes from a World War I German general who was impressed by the brave-hearted British soldiers being led by military higher-ups too weak-willed to exploit the mettle of their own troops for a greater good.
The point being, if you have a force to be reckoned with, by golly, you ought to use it.
That plays out here in three separate yet ludicrously interconnected narrative threads so thin it is a wonder they don’t snap the minute they’re lifted from the spool. An old-school liberal professor (Redford) calls a bright frat-boy slacker (Andrew Garfield) into his office in the hopes of inspiring the kid to accept the mantle of greatness (great white hope-ness) before ennui and apathy take hold. Meanwhile, a hotshot Republican senator (Tom Cruise) invites an old-school liberal journalist (Meryl Streep) into his office to pitch a new military initiative that will incite a fierce campaign in Afghanistan and invigorate the war on terror. The senator needs a mouthpiece, a megaphone through which to announce this opening salvo destined to rally the troops abroad and the citizenry at home who have lost hope in the party and the war.
And, finally, the on-the-ground military command near the peak of one of Afghanistan’s mountains gathers troops for a last-minute strategic session before sending the soldiers off on this first assault. Of course, two members of the small strike force (played by Derek Luke and Michael Pena) are former students of the college professor.
Everybody’s talking, even the two soldiers who end up stranded on the mountain, injured and quickly depleting their supply of ammunition as opposing forces draw near. We see the soldiers talking, in class, clumsily walking through a project on need for social change to come from the young and privileged, fending off attacks from their classmates who dream of nothing more than sucking the good life off the materialistic teat by offering themselves up as symbols of the ideal, basically martyrs for the cause. It is too obvious, very much like Crash, to use minorities as the foot soldiers in this morality offensive. Why wouldn’t they see that for themselves? Why wouldn’t Pena, who has the misfortune of playing the sacrificial lamb (to a certain extent) in both films.
And so it comes back to that — lions and lambs. Cruise’s senator is the ultimate lion, but not one learned enough to see that he is doomed to repeat a failed and failing lesson. It is easy to be a lion when you don’t have to leave the comfort of your warm mountaintop perch.
The same can be said of Redford’s professor who hectors his student and gets to hide behind the storied glory of his own military experience that hangs on the wall. He was a lion on the field once, and the last one alive, so he has earned the right to call others out.
In the end, though, there are no lions, young or old. Yet the film wants to make us all both lions and lambs. We rush to judgment, rush to support the judgments and rush to cover our asses when the lack of judgment becomes obvious. Maybe we are all lions and lambs because we are all being sacrificed; we all die little deaths on those battlefields, those wasted lands.
We know this all too well, whether we want to admit it or not, which makes Lions for Lambs a redundant cry in the media fray. We know we are to blame and we can see that Redford and company must surely understand how their film proves its case and condemns its own cause, almost more than it indicts its ideological enemies.
Maybe because of this fact, I can’t quite bring myself to hate Lions for Lambs. Its labored language will not unite audiences either for or against the cause of war. It is simply more salt in the wounds. The price of the Iraq War can be measured in many ways, but the value of salt, it seems, will never be in short demand. Grade: C- (tt stern-enzi)