Tag Archives: On Politics

The comedies of terror: Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay *** & Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden? **

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 3, 2008)

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They say that tragedy plus time equals comedy. In the 2005 film, The Aristocrats, a documentary about the “filthiest joke in the world”, there is a fascinating bit of footage from the 2001 Friar’s Club Roast for Hugh Hefner, which took place just after 9/11. Gilbert Gottfried launched into  a bit about the attack. Within moments, he was being roundly catcalled by cries of “Too soon!”

Mind you, this was a room full of professional funny people, who make their living from irreverence. But that was then. I don’t know if I should laugh or cry  that we currently have two films  that glibly incorporate 9/11 into their titles: Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay and Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden? Has the War on Terror been slogging on for that long? Yes, it has.

In 2004, a modestly-budgeted stoner comedy, with a juvenile title and two unknown leads, became an unexpected cult phenomenon. Arguably, the most surprising thing about Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle was that, between the bong hits, sex gags and scatological references, there lurked an undercurrent of sharp sociopolitical commentary about racial stereotyping in America (for the uninitiated, Harold and Kumar are portrayed by a Korean-American and Indian-American actor, respectively)

The movie was gut-busting funny, and in a fresh way. The film’s co-creators, Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Scholssberg, now officially turn their baked slacker heroes into a sort of Cheech and Chong franchise for millennials with the release of a politically topical sequel, Harold and Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay.

The events of the first film occurred just “last week”.  Harold (John Cho) and Kumar (Kal Penn) are excitedly packing their bags for a dream European vacation in weed-friendly Amsterdam. Unbeknownst to Harold, Kumar has smuggled his new invention, a “smokeless” bong, on board their flight. Since it is a homemade, cylindrical device containing liquid, it resembles a You Know What.

When a “vigilant” passenger, already eyeballing Kumar with suspicion due to his ethnic countenance, accidentally catches a glimpse of him attempting to fire up his device in the bathroom, all hell breaks loose. Before they know it, Harold and Kumar have been handcuffed by on-board air marshals, given the third degree back on the ground by an overzealous, jingoistic government spook (played to the hilt by The Daily Show alumnus Rob Corddry) and issued a pair of orange jumpsuits, courtesy of the Gitmo quartermaster.

Through a serendipitous set of circumstances that could only occur in Harold and Kumar’s resin-encrusted alternate universe, they manage to break out, and hitch a boat ride to Florida (don’t ask). This sets off a series of wacky cross-country misadventures, mostly through the deep South (imagine the possibilities).

As in the first film, the more ridiculously over-the-top and unlikely their predicament gets, the funnier it becomes (it’s like being really stoned, I mean, from what I’ve been told-ahem). And once again, the duo’s Doogie ex machina appears just in time to lend a much-needed hand, in the person of “Neil Patrick Harris” (played with winking, hyper-hetero exaggeration by, erm, Neil Patrick Harris).

I will admit that my unabashed enjoyment of Hurwitz and Schlossberg’s oeuvre (if I may call it that after only two entries) is a guilty pleasure. Okay, so we’re not talking Coppola or Scorsese here. And I’ll grant you, H & K films can be crass, even vulgar at times; but it’s somehow good-naturedly crass and vulgar, in a South Park kind of way. I see a lot of parallels between Hurwitz and Schlosberg’s work and the output of South Park creators, Matt Stone and Trey Parker.

Both teams serve up their social and political satire slyly cloaked by the  silly behavior of their (literally and figuratively) cartoon-like protagonists. You can get away with subversive anarchy when your polemic is delivered “from of the mouth of babes”. At the end of the day, Harold and Kumar are classic “innocents” at heart, as are South Park’s little potty-mouthed darlings. Harold and Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay may not be everybody’s bowl of Columbian, but I’ll be goddamned if it ain’t the funniest film I’ve seen so far this year.

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I wish I could say the same for the latest from documentary filmmaker Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me), who I like to refer to as “Michael Moore lite”. Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden? is an admirably earnest, if flawed attempt by the likeable Spurlock to reach out to the “everyday folks” living in the Middle East and show Americans that they’re really just like us, after all; you know- “people are people”, and all that. Oh, and while he was there, he thought he might get some leads on where Osama’s bin hidin’.

Spurlock’s concept for his new film was inspired by his wife’s pregnancy (their first child). While brainstorming proactive steps he could take to ensure a “safe world” for his unborn, he thought he might start by doing his part to end the war on terror-by helping our hapless government locate You Know Who. Using the gimmicky framing device of an ersatz video game to introduce film segments, we follow Spurlock’s progress as he travels to Egypt, Israel, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and Morocco in search of the vox populi (and the slippery tall dude with the walkie-talkie).

With the exception of a few cranky customers, like a radical Muslim cleric with a vitriolic demeanor and a Charlie Manson glare , most of Spurlock’s subjects express variations on “I really don’t have any truck with the American people, but I do hate your government with the intensity of a thousand suns.” Proving of course, that they really are like us (well, those of us who have been paying close attention for the last seven years). And, naturally, the response to queries on bin-Laden’s whereabouts is usually a shrug and a laugh, or a vague point in the direction of the border they share with a neighboring country.

My favorite response is from a hard-scrabbled Afghani tribesman who counters, “Who’s ‘Osama’?” When the interpreter tells him: “He’s the one who destroyed the buildings in America”, the old codger  testily snaps: “Fuck him.” Then, as an afterthought, before turning on his heel to dive back into his motley hut, he adds: “And fuck America”. That’s my kind of guy, a real pragmatist.

There are some other genuinely funny moments that temper the underlying grimness. For instance, a high ranking official in Tora Bora (location of the infamous subterranean HQ for bin Laden in Afghanistan) speaks enthusiastically of his proposed plan to turn the caves into a tourist attraction (I think there’s an idea for a Mel Brooks movie in there somewhere). Spurlock is to be admired for keeping a straight face throughout this particular interview.

Unfortunately , Spurlock’s  loses credibility  in two specific scenes. The first takes place in Tel Aviv, where Spurlock and his crew are stonewalled (and nearly stoned) by a group of ultra-orthodox Jews (Haredim, I believe, from their clothing). Spurlock mugs an annoyingly self-righteous “why are they persecuting me?” look at the camera while he’s being shoved about; as if he assumes that the viewer will find these angry men with hats very amusing.

Some sects of orthodox Jews are a very strict, closed society and wary of strangers (not unlike the Amish and the Mormon polygamist sect), so naturally they are not going to be too crazy about an outsider shoving cameras and microphones in their faces. What did he expect? I’d like to think Spurlock is smarter than that, especially when the message of his film is allegedly about reaching out to bridge cultural misunderstandings, as opposed to creating new ones.

The other scene occurs during the Saudi Arabia segment. Spurlock interviews two teenage male students. After giving disclaimers that the two interviewees were  handpicked by the school staff, and that two school officials insisted on being present during the interview, Spurlock precedes to pepper the boys with incendiary questions.

The anxiety and fear is palpable on the young men’s faces; they nervously glance off camera where the school observers are  positioned before answering each question with a variation on “I have no opinion on that.”  Granted, this may be  Spurlock’s point; but by this point, he has already established Saudi Arabia is a draconian oligarchy; what’s he trying to prove by shooting fish in a barrel?

You could call this a mixed review. If you got a kick out of Super Size Me, or his TV series 30 Days, you may be more forgiving of Spurlock’s trespasses in the film. Maybe I’m just being over-sensitive, and others may not glean the same subtext from the particular scenes I found objectionable. To be fair, I did laugh a lot, and as I stated earlier, I applaud the inspiration behind the film. Let’s call it a draw.

The Cost(Co) of conflict: War, Inc. **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 21, 2008)

In star/producer/co-writer John Cusack’s pet project War, Inc., one character delivers a throwaway line that must surely have been the pitch for the film: “This is like Strangelove in the desert.” Indeed, one senses the ghosts of savage satires past, like Dr. Strangelove, The President’s Analyst, Network and Winter Kills in this topical send-up of BushCo and the post-9/11 ‘murcan zeitgeist. Unfortunately, one also senses a lack of cohesion in an initially smart script that soon loses focus and goes tumbling ass over teakettle into broad farce, wildly firing its barbs in too many directions at the same time.

Cusack’s character is Brand Hauser, a hot-sauce chugging hit man with a tortured past who seems to be an amalgam of Jason Bourne, Captain Willard and, um, Chuck Barris. He has been dispatched to “Turaqistan” (ahem), a war-torn Middle Eastern hot spot ripe for reconstruction and corporate exploitation. He is there to terminate the country’s Oil Minister (Lyubomir Neikov) with extreme prejudice. The minister is a spanner in the works for the corporate machinations of Hauser’s employer, a former Vice-President turned CEO (Dan Ackroyd, doing a credible quacking Cheney) who now heads Tamerlane (a cross between Halliburton and Blackwater).

The prospect of spearheading the “first completely out-sourced war” appears to make the ex-Veep harder than Chinese arithmetic. In order to get close to his target, Hauser poses as the event coordinator of a Tamerlane-sponsored trade fair being held in the capital city’s “green zone”. Hauser’s front soon proves to be the tougher gig, as he juggles the demands of three women: his fellow operative posing as his P.A. (Joan Cusack), a tenacious lefty journalist (Marisa Tomei) and a petulant pop diva named Yonica Babyyeah (Hilary Duff). Hilarity ensues.

Reportedly, the filmmakers have coyly denied that this is an unofficial sequel to Grosse Pointe Blank, but obvious comparisons abound, particularly in just about every scene that the Cusack siblings share; it feels at the very least to be a nod and a wink to the roles they played in that movie. Admittedly, it is great fun watching those two working together again, but it only serves as a momentary distraction from the film’s uneven tone.

Director Joshua Seftel does his best to hold it together, and manages to give the film a slick look that belies a low budget. Cusack was inspired to tackle the project after reading an article written by Canadian journalist/activist Naomi Klein back in 2004 (Tomei’s character is, I would assume, based on Klein). He enlisted the help of two talented co-writers, Bullworth scripter Jeremy Pisker and satirist Mark Leyner. However, this may be a case of “too many cooks” and could explain the screenplay’s scattershot approach.

I don’t mind an occasional brushstroke of symbolism in a film, but there are one too many instances in War, Inc. where it’s caked on with a trowel. One set piece in particular, a flashback scene showing Hauser in a violent, gladiatorial confrontation with his former boss (an even hammier than usual Ben Kingsley) takes place in a dilapidated theme park that looks to have been a replica of ancient Rome. It’s the end of the world as we know it!

I think the malady here is similar to that which plagued Lions for Lambs: an overdose of intent. Redford’s film came on too somber and preachy, even for the choir. War, Inc. swings to the opposite extreme; it’s too manic and overeager to beat us over the head with what we already know: Iraq is a shameful mess, Bush and his cronies have completely blurred the line between war and commerce, and the majority of the American public is too busy watching the sun rise and set over Britney’s thighs to really notice. I’m afraid that War, Inc. is another case of “I really wanted to like this, but…”

The Edge is Still Out There: Gonzo, the Life and Work of Hunter S. Thompson ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 12, 2008)

No fun to hang around
Feeling that same old way
No fun to hang around
Freaked out for another day
No fun my babe no fun

 -The Stooges

 “No More Games. No More Bombs. No More Walking. No More Fun. No More Swimming. 67. That is 17 years past 50. 17 more than I needed or wanted. Boring. I am always bitchy. No Fun — for anybody. 67. You are getting Greedy. Act your old age. Relax — This won’t hurt.”

 -Hunter S. Thompson

It’s been just over three years now since the godfather of gonzo journalism eschewed his beloved typewriter to scrawl those words with a magic marker, four days prior to pulling a Hemingway. Ever the contrarian, Thompson couldn’t resist adding a twist of gonzo irony to his suicide note, by entitling it “Football Season is Over.”

Since then, several quickie “tell-all” books have played Monday morning quarterback with the life and legacy of the iconoclastic writer, with what one would assume would be a wildly varying degree of accuracy. That’s because Hunter S. Thompson was a mass of  contradictions. His work was imbued with DFH political idealism and tempered by full commitment to sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll; yet he loved to collect guns, blow shit up and counted the likes of Pat Buchanan among his personal friends. I don’t envy his biographers.

In Gonzo: the Life and Work of Hunter S. Thompson, director Alex Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side, Enron: the Smartest Guys in the Room) may have discovered the right formula. He takes an approach as scattershot and unpredictable as the subject himself; using a frenetic pastiche of talking heads, vintage home movies,  film clips, animation, audio tapes and snippets of prose (voiced by Johnny Depp, who has become to Thompson what Hal Holbrook is to Mark Twain). While Gibney keeps the timeline fairly linear, he does make interesting choices along the way-and equally interesting omissions (e.g., Thompson’s formative years are given the bum’s rush).

Gibney begins with the 1966 book Hell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga, which first established Thompson’s groundbreaking style of journalism (as one interviewee observes, he essentially “embedded” himself with the notorious motorcycle gang). An overview of his Rolling Stone reportage ensues, highlighted by the assignment that resulted in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. There’s a fascinating account of how Thompson’s bacchanalian propensities caused him to blow his coverage of the Ali-Foreman bout in Zaire, posited by Gibney as the first inkling that personal excesses were starting to affect HST’s ability to consistently knock one out of the park with each piece.

A lion’s share of the film is devoted to two particular chapters of Thompson’s life: his quasi-serious run for sheriff of Aspen, Colorado and his coverage of the 1972 presidential elections (which provided fodder for Thompson’s Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72).

The segment regarding the 1972 campaign is so riveting and well-crafted that I wished Gibney had turned it into a full-length companion documentary. Gibney reveals how the Eagleton VP nomination debacle and resultant death knell for the McGovern campaign was also a crushing blow to Thompson’s personal sense of 1960s idealism, signaling the beginning of an escalating disillusionment and bitterness that would permeate his political writing from that point on. The director also reminds us that Thompson was quite instrumental in bringing then-governor Jimmy Carter into the national political spotlight by championing his 1974 Law Day Speech.

I think political junkies are going to dig this film more than the those chiefly enamored with Hunter S. Thompson’s superficial substance-fueled “rebel” persona. Excepting the depiction of Thompson’s relatively unproductive latter years, spent ensconced in his Colorado compound, too distracted by guns, drugs and sycophants to do little else but slowly disappear up his own legend (like Elvis at Graceland) the director suppresses the urge to play up the public notoriety and revel in the writer’s recreational excesses, just to sell more movie tickets. If you’re expecting a sequel to Gilliam’s film, this is not for you.

The film is not without its flaws; the frequent use of Depp clips from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas becomes distracting and begins to feel like cheating (by contrast, there is only one brief nod to Bill Murray’s turn in Where the Buffalo Roam.) This is a minor quibble, because there are some real treasures here. Devotees will delight in listening to the audio snippets from the original cassettes that Thompson made while cruising through the Nevada desert with his attorney, as well as the recording of a shouting match between the writer and his long-time collaborator Ralph Steadman while they were in Zaire (let us pray that the DVD will bonus more from those priceless tapes).

This is not a hagiography; several ex-wives and associates  make no bones about reminding us that the man could be a real asshole. On the other hand, examples of his genuine humanity and idealism are brought to the fore as well, making for an insightful and fairly balanced overview of this “Dr. Gonzo and Mr. Thompson” dichotomy. What the director does not forget is that, at the end of the day, HST was the most unique American political commentator/ social observer who ever sat down to peck at a bullet-riddled typewriter.

Bastard. We could sure as shit use him now.

Arise, Commie Pinko Hollywood Lefties: Reds (****) & The Internationale (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 17, 2007)

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Every time I see our illustrious VP’s mug on the tube or hear mention of Halliburton, I always flash on my favorite scene in Warren Beatty’s Reds. Early on in the film, the story’s protagonist, journalist/activist/Communist Party member John Reed (Beatty), is at a meeting of Portland’s Liberal Club, where discussion has turned to the current war in Europe (WWI). Reed is asked what he thinks the conflict is “about”. Reed stands up, simply mumbles one word, then promptly sits right back down. The word: “Profits”. The crystalline brevity of that answer blew my (then) twenty-something mind back in 1981.

Indeed, it is a testament to Beatty’s own sense of conviction and legendary powers of persuasion (or as Tom Hanks put it, repeatedly, at the recent Golden Globe Awards, “Balls”) that he was able to convince a major Hollywood studio to back a 3 ½ hour epic about a relatively obscure American Communist (who is buried in the Kremlin, no less).

As we know now, of course, the film turned out to be a critical success, and garnered a dozen Oscar noms (it won three, including Best Director). Almost unbelievably, it was not released on DVD until late 2006. If you haven’t seen it in a while, or have never seen it-you owe yourself a screening, particularly if you are a history buff.

Diane Keaton turns in one of her best performances as Reed’s lover, writer and feminist Louise Bryant. Maureen Stapleton (who we sadly lost last year) earned her Best Supporting Actress trophy with a memorable portrayal of activist Emma Goldman. Jack Nicholson’s take on the complex, mercurial playwright, Eugene O’Neill is a wonder to behold. And Beatty deserves kudos for assembling an amazing group of surviving real-life participants, whose anecdotal recollections are seamlessly interwoven throughout, like a Greek Chorus of living history. No one makes ‘em like this anymore.

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If you really want to make a “subversive” night of it, a certain rousing anthem that figures prominently in the Reds soundtrack is the sole spotlight of another recent DVD release. Blending archival footage with thoughtful commentary, The Internationale takes a look at the origins and historical impact of the eponymous political anthem, from its 19th century roots in the French Commune movement to Tienanmen Square and beyond, packed into a breezy 30 minutes.

Arguably one of the most idealized (and frequently misinterpreted) rallying songs ever composed (just the melody alone gives me goose bumps), the tune has been embraced by Socialists, Marxists, anarchists, anti-Fascists, workers and labor activists alike over the years, transcending nationalist and language barriers. The most interesting aspect the film examines concerns the bad rap the song received after it was “officially” adapted by the oppressive, post-revolutionary Soviet regime. Pete Seeger (a perfect choice, no?) emcees the proceedings, with support from historians, musicologists, and multinational participants (veteran and current) in some of the aforementioned movements. British punk agitprop troubadour extraordinaire Billy Bragg also makes a brief appearance. C’mon everybody! You know the words…

That aside, Mrs. Lincoln…what did you think of the play? – Death of a President **

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 28, 2007)

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Picture if you will: Sometime in the near future (October of 2007 to be precise), President Bush makes a trip to Chicago for some speechifying and political schmoozing. As his motorcade nears the site of a scheduled luncheon, it runs into a gauntlet of agitated demonstrators. When the crowd unexpectedly breaches the police line, all hell breaks loose; there is a moment where the POTUS appears to be in danger before things get back under control.

The President is whisked off to his luncheon, he makes his speech, and decides afterwards to work the ropes and shake hands with supporters for a few minutes before heading out (much to the chagrin of his Secret Service detail). Suddenly, gunfire erupts and the President crumples to the ground.

This is the audacious opening scenario of British writer-director Gabriel Range’s speculative political thriller Death of a President, now on DVD. While in its initial (and sparse) theatrical release, it invoked some amount of controversy; primarily knee-jerk reaction from those who assumed this was going to be some type of sick Bush-hating liberal snuff fantasy (a conclusion drawn, of course, before they had even screened it).

Setting politics aside for a moment, the film itself turns out to be a somewhat tame and at times downright tepid affair, despite its sensationalist premise. Range utilizes the docudrama technique of blending archival news footage with mixed-media film stocks (a la JFK) to lend an air of authenticity; and indeed the opening sequences depicting the assassination event are chillingly realistic.

The director apparently filmed an actual anti-Bush demonstration in the streets of Chicago, then for the sake of continuity invited some of the same protestors to appear as extras in the fictional motorcade scene (which invites comparisons to Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool, in which actors were thrown into the midst of the real-life 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention demonstrator/police skirmishes and told to improvise while cameras rolled).

Unfortunately, by front-loading the gripping assassination enactment and then descending into a more static, History Channel-style blend of talking-head recollections and dramatic re-enactments, Range shoots himself in the foot and removes potential added suspense or dramatic tension (don’t expect The Day of the Jackal). There is a “whodunit” element, but the pacing slows to such a crawl that it’s anti-climactic when the killer is revealed.

The most interesting aspects are the speculations about the post-assassination political climate. And yes, most of your dystopian nightmares about a Cheney-led administration do “come true”, including a particularly foreboding piece of emergency legislation entitled the “Patriot Act 3” (shudder!). There is also a treatise of sorts about the post-9/11 tendency in this country to make “rush to judgment” assumptions about people of color. “Conspiracy-a-go-go” buffs might find this film worth a look; others may doze off.

They’re gonna crucify me: The U.S. vs. John Lennon ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 24, 2007)

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Back in 1972, the U.S. government handed a certain British émigré a rather abrupt eviction notice, informing him and the missus that they had 60 days to get out of the country or face deportation proceedings. This missive might have vanished in the mists of time, had the folks in question not been a couple known to millions as, simply, John & Yoko. And so began a four-year legal battle for legal citizenship, chronicled in a straightforward documentary called The US vs John Lennon, now available on DVD.

You know the back story: After a very public and controversial courtship, John Lennon and Yoko Ono marry in 1969, the Beatles break up, John and Yoko begin making their own headlines with a series of relatively benign political media stunts (the “Bed-In For Peace”, the “Bag-In”, etc.) and then eventually settle in NYC in the early 70’s, at which time they begin to gravitate to the more “radical” politics of the American anti-war movement, much to the chagrin of the Nixon administration.

The apparent final straw for Tricky D. was John and Yoko’s 1972 appearance at a charity concert to help cover legal fees for White Panther Party founder John Sinclair, who had been jailed ostensibly on drug charges, but considered by many at the time to be a political prisoner.

Declassified documents now prove that, from day one, there was direct inter-agency manipulation of John and Yoko’s deportation proceedings, from the FBI all the way up to the Oval Office, resulting in a nearly four-year long persecution that was probably best described by Lennon himself, who referred to the machinations as “Kafkaesque”.

The film features plenty of archival footage, with present-day recollections from the likes of Bobby Seale, John Sinclair, Geraldo Rivera, Noam Chomsky, Ron Kovic, Paul Krassner, George McGovern, and, er, G. Gordon Liddy (guess whose side he’s on).

The most insightful comment comes from the ever-glib Gore Vidal, who, when asked what it was about Lennon that made him such a threat to the Nixon cabal, says: “He (Lennon) represented Life, and was admirable. Mr. Nixon, and (for that matter) Mr. Bush, represent Death, and that’s bad.” (Perhaps an over-simplification, but astute.)

The film is a bit dry in its execution (it was produced by VH-1, which probably explains the rote Behind the Music vibe) but it’s still a compelling story, and an important one. It has much to say about what is going on right now, particularly in regards to the “dissent vs. disloyalty” issue and the dangers of living under an administration that treats the Bill of Rights as a list of “suggested options”. Careful, Junior. Instant karma’s gonna get you.

Ordinary people go to war: Lions For Lambs **

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 17, 2007)

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I’m a schoolboy. Teach me.

There are three things I learned from watching Robert Redford’s new film Lions for Lambs. (1) The MSM is in bed with K Street spin doctors (2 ) War is hell, and (3) Apparently, the United States is currently embroiled in some kind of endless Vietnam-like quagmire in the Middle East (I didn’t say I learned anything new, did I?).

Redford casts himself as Vietnam vet/poly sci professor Stephen Malley, who strives to mentor his brightest and most promising students to walk the walk and commit themselves to affecting real political change through active civic involvement. Two of his recent graduate students, Arian Finch (Derek Luke) and Ernest Rodriguez (Michael Pena) have not only accepted his challenge to “get involved”, but upped the ante by enlisting for combat duty in Afghanistan.

Professor Malley feels conflicted; while he admires their integrity, he had secretly hoped the young men would be inspired to use their talents to help change the system that perpetuates the Vietnam and Afghanistan type conflicts, rather than volunteering to become cannon fodder themselves (Gallipoli, anyone?). His current concern this school year, however, is his latest star pupil, Todd Hayes (Andrew Garfield) who has sunk into apathy. Todd has been called into the office for a pep talk.

Unbeknownst to the professor, while he is sitting in his office chatting so amiably, his two ex-pupils are taking part in the first wave of a new military strategy to locate and destroy stubborn pockets of Taliban resistance in Afghanistan. Small units of Special Forces troops are being sent in to the most rugged mountain areas to bait the enemy into the open, so they can be easily taken out by tactical air strikes. Cannon fodder, indeed.

The plan is the brainchild of an ambitious, hawkish conservative congressman, Senator Jasper Irving (Tom Cruise, who also co-produced). As the film opens, he is sitting down for an interview with TV journalist Janine Roth (Meryl Streep). Irving is a rising star in the Republican Party, grooming himself for a presidential bid. The senator has cagily chosen Janine to receive the “exclusive” news on the new military strategy, because he credits her previous coverage with helping to build his  cachet. Janine is apprehensive; she knows she’s being played, but on the other hand no reporter with a pulse can resist an exclusive story. A verbal cat-and-mouse game ensues.

The film is structured around these three scenarios; all the “action” takes place concurrently in a professor’s office, a senator’s office, and a remote mountain ridge in Afghanistan. And that is Lions for Lambs in a nutshell. While the stories are tied together by characters and events, the overall effect is dramatically flat. Redford’s character literally spends the entire film lecturing the passive Todd (a proxy, no doubt, for the hapless audience). The battle scenes are chock-a-block with cliche, boo-ya  Blackhawk Down heroics.

The only real acting sparks are courtesy of la Streep, who has some spirited moments with Cruise. Cruise is OK, though basically playing himself.  In essence, Cruise is reprising a  suspiciously similar scene in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia,  where he plays an arrogant, egotistical  media star who sits down with a reporter and spins like a dervish. Full disclosure: I am not a Tom Cruise fan (there, I said it).

I really wanted to like this film, really I did. Historically, Redford has proven himself to be a thoughtful and intelligent filmmaker-but I can’t really recommend this one. I applaud his effort to snap our present generation of future leaders out of their video game stupor, challenging them to think hard about what our government is really up to; but if you’re going to rip a story out of today’s headlines and turn it into a movie, you’ve got to give the kids something more exciting to watch than a glorified C-Span broadcast.

It’s a shame, really- because the audience he really needs to reach is going to stay away from this film in droves. At the sparsely attended Saturday matinee screening I attended here in Seattle, I glanced around and found myself essentially looking at fellow choir members, nodding sympathetically while thoughtfully stroking our salt-and-pepper goatees. But are any of us going to rush home and announce our candidacy? Not likely.

Maybe Cruise and Redford would get more mileage out of their film if they arrange showings for high school civics and poly sci college classes (no, I’m not being facetious). Otherwise, the only way you are going to successfully market a film with a sociopolitical message to the Jackass demographic is to follow Sacha Baron Cohen’s lead.

Sometimes, covert ops are just like a box of chocolates: Charlie Wilson’s War ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 29, 2007)

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Aaron Sorkin, you silver-tongued devil, you had me at: “Ladies and gentlemen of the clandestine community…”

That line is from the opening scene of the new film Charlie Wilson’s War, in which the title character, a Texas congressman (played in full Gumpian southern-drawl mode by Tom Hanks) is receiving an Honored Colleague award from the, er-ladies and gentlemen of the clandestine community (you know, that same group of merry pranksters who orchestrated such wild and wooly hi-jinx as the Bay of Pigs invasion.)

Sorkin, (creator/writer of The West Wing ) provides the smart, snappy dialog for high-class director Mike Nichols’ latest foray into political satire, a genre he hasn’t dabbled in since his excellent 1998 film Primary Colors. In actuality, Nichols and Sorkin may have viewed their screen adaptation of Wilson’s real-life story as  a cakewalk, because it falls into the “you couldn’t make this shit up” category.

Wilson, known to Beltway insiders as “good-time Charlie” during his congressional tenure, is an unlikely American hero. He drank like a fish and loved to party, but could readily charm key movers and shakers into supporting his pet causes and any attractive young lady within range into the sack. So how did this whiskey quaffing poon hound circumvent the official U.S. government foreign policy of the time (mid to late 1980s) and help the Mujahideen rebels drive the Russians out of Afghanistan, ostensibly paving the way for the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War?

He did it with a little help from his friends- a coterie of strange bedfellows including an Israeli arms dealer, a belly-dancing girlfriend, high-ranking officials in Egypt and Pakistan, a misanthropic but handily resourceful CIA operative, and “the sixth-richest woman in Texas”, who also happened to be a fervent anti-communist. It’s quite the tale.

Phillip Seymour Hoffman continues his track record of stealing every film he appears in. He plays the aforementioned CIA operative, Gust Avrakotos, with aplomb. His character is less than diplomatic in the personality department; he becomes a pariah at the Agency after telling his department head to fuck off once or twice (and always within earshot of colleagues). Through serendipity, Gust falls in league with Wilson and one of his lady friends, wealthy socialite Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts).

Once they unite, the three are a sort of political X-Men team; each with their own Special Power. Joanne has influence with high-ranking Middle East officials, and can set up meetings; Charlie can talk just about anybody into anything; and Gust can get “it” done, especially if it involves cutting corners and bypassing the middleman. Once Joanne lures powerful congressman Doc Long (the wonderful Ned Beatty) on board, the deal is sealed.

The film doesn’t deviate too much from the facts laid out in the book by George Crile; despite some inherent elements of political satire, it’s a fairly straightforward rendering. What is most interesting to me is what they left out; especially after viewing The True Story of Charlie Wilson, a documentary currently airing on the History Channel (check your listings). One incident in particular, which involved a private arms dealer “accidentally” blowing up a D.C. gas station (oops!) on his way to a meeting with Wilson and Avrakotos, seems like it would have been a no-brainer for the movie (maybe some legal issues involved, perhaps?) The History Channel documentary also recalls Wilson’s involvement with a (non-injury) hit and run accident that occurred on the eve of one of his most crucial Middle-Eastern junkets (the congressman admits that he was plastered).

I think it’s also worth noting one more little tidbit from Wilson’s past that didn’t make it into the movie-but I think I can understand why. Allegedly, the randy congressman once had a little, er, “congress” with a hot young television journalist named Diane Sawyer. Yes, that Diane Sawyer, of 60 Minutes fame. That same Diane Sawyer who is married to (wait for it)…director Mike Nichols (it’s all part of life’s rich pageant, you know).

 A final thought. After the film’s feel-good, flag waving coda subsided and the credits started rolling, something nagged at me. There was a glaring omission in the postscript of this “true story”; I will pose it as an open question to Mssrs. Nichols, Sorkin and Hanks:

So tell me-exactly how did we get from all those colorful, rapturously happy, missile launcher-waving Afghani tribesmen, dancing in praise to America while chanting Charlie Wilson’s name back in the late 80s to nightly news footage of collapsing towers and U.S. troops spilling their blood into the very same rocky desert tableau, a scant decade later?

Let’s see you spin that story into a wacky romp starring Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts.