Lions for Lambs, In the Valley of Elah, and Rendition Chizfilm Movie Reviews
May 5, 2008

Recent Hollywood Films about War on Terror Try to Balance Emotion and Intellect

by Jonathan Chisdes

Since 9/11, more than six years ago, there have been many documentaries that have explored the serious issues brought about by the US’s War on Terror. (The most entertaining and humorous, if not enlightening, of these is “Where in the World Is Osama Bin Laden?” which I recommend and is currently in theaters. Also currently playing is “Standard Operating Procedure” which I haven’t yet had a chance to see but have heard good things about.) However, there have been very few feature films.

Around the fifth anniversary, Hollywood released a few movies like the made-for-TV film “Flight 93,” Paul Greengass’ “United 93,” and Oliver Stone’s oddly-non-controversial “World Trade Center.” But these films focused mostly on that single day which began the whole thing; they had little to say about what life is like in the post 9/11 era.

However, late last year, Hollywood released three new feature films, “Rendition,” “In the Valley of Elah,” and “Lions for Lambs,” which deal directly with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the battles against terrorists and basic human rights. All three are now out on DVD.

Of these three films, “Lions for Lambs” is the most intellectual but least emotional. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth seeing, but it doesn’t really satisfy as a feature film. The story follows three seemingly separate but actually connected plot lines. The first dealing with a Republican Senator (Tom Cruise) giving an exclusive story about a new military strategy in Afghanistan to a skeptical reporter (Meryl Streep) as they debate the War on Terror. The second concerns two soldiers (Michael Peña and Derek Luke) involved in that offensive who become pinned down on a mountain top and must hold off an attack by Taliban soldiers. The third plot line is about their former professor (Robert Redford, who also directs) who tries to convince one of his brilliant but apathetic students (Andrew Garfield) that it’s worthwhile to apply himself.

The most important of these is the Cruise/Streep story. Both characters make excellent debate points and go beyond your typical sound bites (although neither actually says anything that you probably haven’t heard before, if you keep current with the news and opinion from our best newspapers and magazines). I found it interesting to note, when I read user reviews of this movie, that those who professed to be right wing felt that Cruise’s character made stronger arguments and those who confessed a liberal bias thought that Streep’s character made the stronger points. Personally, I though the argument was pretty balanced, especially considering director Redford’s politics; so the movie didn’t really change anyone’s opinion, which is too bad. I also felt disappointed in that the characters were stock characters; I didn’t see them as real people, but rather as tangible embodiments of points-of-view.

The second film, “In the Valley of Elah,” has just the opposite problem. Although, in this case “problem” is not really the appropriate word. Short on political arguments, this film is full of character. Most specifically, Tommy Lee Jones, that powerful actor who can say so much by saying so little. He plays a Vietnam vet who hears that his son, a soldier who has just returned stateside from the war in Iraq, is AWOL. Shortly thereafter, his charred remains turn up in an empty field not far form the base. Jones joins a local detective, played by Charlize Theron, to find the killer.

Like in a typical whodunit, clues are found and investigated, possible suspects are eliminated, and finally it’s revealed who did it and why. But in the end, who actually did it and why isn’t important. Er, actually, on second thought, the “why” is important. But what’s more important is that as the investigation unfolds, we get a real close look at the effect the war has had on those who fought it. The murder-mystery is really just a lead-in to better examine what happens to warriors after the war is over—or at least their part in it—and how lost young men can become after they return home. This movie shows one of the major unintended results of the War on Terror which those who promote the war would rather sweep under the rug.

The best film of the three, though, is “Rendition;” it draws you in as it engages both the heart and the brain. It’s an ensemble piece where the characters deal with many of the same issues which Cruise and Streep debate in “Lions for Lambs,” but on a practical, rather than theoretical, level. Plus the characters are so much more real.

The story interweaves a number of related plot-lines that all emanate from a terrorist bomb exploding in an unnamed North-African country. In a desperate attempt to track down any information, the CIA latches onto some shaky, circumstantial evidence which points to a possibility that an Americanized Egyptian named Anwar (Omar Metwally) might know something. He is nabbed and transported to a foreign country for interrogation under a government program known as extraordinary rendition; the order is given by CIA chief Meryl Streep (yes, in this movie she plays a character with the opposite point of view than the one she played in “Lions for Lambs”—that she is convincing in both is testament to her amazing talent).

Jake Gyllenhaal is the idealistic agent, who volunteered the day after 9/11, assigned to Anwar’s case. Since US agents are forbidden by law to torture, they must ask their Arab friends to torture for them. Yagal Naor is more than happy to oblige. But he has his own personal family problems since his daughter (Zineb Oukach) has run away with her boyfriend (Mao Khouas) who in turn has become radicalized by fundamentalist religion and dreams of becoming a martyr.

Meanwhile, Anwar’s wife, Reese Witherspoon, is given no information on where her husband is, why he’s been taken, or what he’s been charged with. In fact, for a while, it seems to her that he has just vanished out of thin air before she is finally able, through unofficial channels, to learn the tiniest of details. She goes to see an old college friend (Peter Sarsgaard) who is now working for a US Senator (Alan Arkin). Unfortunately, politics renders them rather incapable of helping.

The disturbing torture scenes may be the centerpiece of the film, yet with such a great ensemble cast, it’s fair to say all the major actors have compelling scenes. The one that touches me the most, I’d have to say, is watching Jake Gyllenhaal go through a real moral dilemma as his ideals are tested. It’s clear, even with very little dialogue, he feels quite conflicted by his job.

You will leave the film thinking about all these issues and conflicting ideas which shape and define our time, but you will also be emotionally wiped out by the tragedy of it all.

So this is a pretty good thing, I think, that Hollywood has finally responded to the larger issues of the War on Terror. It’s a good trend and I suspect future films will go even deeper. And it’s only taken six years to get here. Remember, after Vietnam, it took quite a while before Hollywood felt comfortable enough with the subject to start exploring it in depth, with real emotion. It was more than a decade after the US pulled out of Vietnam before Hollywood could make serious films like “Platoon,” “Casualties of War,” “Full Metal Jacket,” “Born on the Fourth of July,” “In Country,” etc.

I believe that the true goal of a good war movie should not be to entertain with spectacular explosions and heart-pounding action, but rather to accurately reflect and artistically examine the role war plays in the world and in our national conscience. These three recent films which I have just highlighted do that, in my opinion, and I look forward to more. Hollywood, keep up the good work.

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