Sunday, April 20, 2008

Lions for Lambs

NOTICE: For unknown reasons, the format of Educated Soldier is looking different than I intended. The background graphic is missing, thus leaving only the mustard-colored layout. I will work to fix this problem at my next convenience. Sorry for the tougher-than-normal reading format.

Despite my objections and desire to only do otherwise, today I watched the film, Lions for Lambs. It featured Meryl Streep, Robert Redford, Tom Cruise and promised a politically charged polemic wrapped around a real-world scenario: i.e. the current and very real war in Afghanistan.

I only relented and watched because of two reasons. The less significant: Robert Redford starred in Spy Game, unmatched as my favorite movie of all time. The other and more important reason is because my Mom encouraged me to do so. I will use the sentiments that my Mom presented prior to my viewing of the film as the foundation to the format in which I evaluate.

With that being said, my Mom found my viewing of this film vital because, as she said, “She saw a lot of me in it.” Having seen the previews before watching Lions for Lambs in its entirety and, given my personal background, I was sure that my personality would show up in the scenes of the soldiers in Afghanistan. I was also fairly sure that the rest of the film would be liberally biased, condescending, less than thought-provoking and detestable in all the ways that these sorts of things typically are. While I will reserve my ultimate judgment, allow me to say this initially: having just finished the film, I find myself questioning which character my Mom found me represented.

With that introduction solidly in place, I present two important declarations: my assessment of Lions for Lambs is completely knee-jerk. I finished the film no more than two minutes ago and have read no outside reviews. What I provide is unequivocally my opinion without influence. Second, if you have not seen the film and plan on doing so, I suggest you stop reading now. While my intention is to discuss the important topics that this film presents and to not necessarily provide “spoilers,” I will not, however, be making any concessions to keep any secrets of the film hidden. In fact, I foresee mentioning at least one particular scene that is essential to the final outcome of the film. Should knowing the outcome ruin your taste for seeing the film, I advise strongly to simply cease reading now.

To best comprehend the aforementioned personalized manner in which I intend to dissect this film, it seems important to know at least a little about me. Thus, you would understand my own thought-processes while I attempt to pinpoint where my Mom saw me epitomized in the film. I truly believe this personalized method of tackling Lions for Lambs will not only allow me to better digest the film, but it will also be eye-opening for many of you that may come from a perspective completely different than my own. I would suspect that those viewing this film would, by the majority, not share my experiences nor views.

That being said, the pivotal experience so far in my short life has been, no doubt, my experience in Iraq. I spent two tours there as a forward observer, having seen both the positives that I truly believe are engrossed in a just cause and the negatives that come from the very reality of war. Since leaving the service, however, I have been a college student and have done rather well for myself academically. Meanwhile, I have wrestled with a desire to return to service; a desire that I am whetting by attempting to become Special Forces-qualified via the National Guard. All the while, I have remained very politically active. I did much via this site to endorse Senator Fred Thompson’s Presidential campaign and I have had the opportunities to both lobby the federal government and meet most of the leaders in the highest offices from the President, to the Secretary of State, to the Joint Chiefs, et. al. Had one seen Lions for Lambs, he or she would, no doubt, understand why I would find such a film particularly intriguing.

One digression: Lions for Lambs makes a factual error that nearly everyone not in the military continually makes. I only point out this error because observing it repeatedly tends to be a pet-peeve of mine. Special Forces (SF) and Special Operation Forces (SOF) are two different entities. Special Forces are a type of Special Operation Force. However, most SOF are not Special Forces. For example, in this film, the soldiers shown in Afghanistan are clearly Army Rangers, an element of SOF. The insignia on their uniforms makes that much clear. However, Tom Cruise’s character refers to these soldiers as Special Forces. They are not. This is hardly a critical portion of the film and, because of such; I will leave you to research the subject should you desire any more clarity on why Cruise’s character is mistaken.

As I said before, prior to viewing the film, I guessed that my Mom figured me out to be represented in the characters portrayed in Afghanistan. And, in many ways, I see a lot of myself in these characters. Ultimately, however, I may very well be that punk student in the office of Robert Redford’s. What’s most interesting is this: outside of Meryl Streep’s, I see very essential parts of my personality embodied in each of the main characters. This is a noteworthy conclusion considering the nature of the individual arriving at it. I am a staunch conservative, supporter of our efforts in Afghanistan AND Iraq, and have never been convinced to hide any of those leanings.

Let us start with Robert Redford’s character. His character is the “me” that prevents me from simply returning back to the active duty military and chasing the noble goal of becoming Special Forces-qualified as I have longed to do for over five years now. As much as I buy into patriotism, adventure, and the military lifestyle, the university (and, most notably, a select few professors whom I genuinely respect) has caused me to buy into this idea of “scholarship.” Each time my passion pushes me towards the military, this side of my essence reminds me that there is an innate and unexplainable beauty in remaining knee-deep in esoteric knowledge that, really, holds no material value. While it hardly makes a difference to this entire world that I am finally grasping the minute differences in the philosophies of Durkheim and Berger, it’s personally compelling enough that I remain interested. My interest in such matters burns so strongly that this very idea of scholarship is what keeps me in school. Those whom know me best know that I am definitely not continuing academically in pursuit of career goals- that’s for sure.

So, while the character of Robert Redford’s possesses wholly different ideals concerning the War on Terrorism, the essence of the personality is one that I can totally relate. A better testament to the film: the part is written so well and performed in such a way that I can even see the merits of the side of the argument opposed to the War on Terror. Biases and passions typically prevent the opposition from presenting their case this well. And, while I still disagree, I must compliment the talent behind Lions for Lambs for presenting the argument in such a compelling, yet comprehendible sort of way.

Tom Cruise’s character is also interesting. It is the one character that I believe, ultimately, was used by the film’s production to drive the vehicle carrying any left-leaning bias. Throughout Lions for Lambs, Cruise’s character is portrayed as passionate and sensible. Each opinion that he expressed throughout the film were ones that I have, myself, made in the past. This hardly makes me special. Cruise’s character does little more than push the same rhetoric that most Right-leaning, hawkish individuals have presented for the past seven-ish years. The dialogue is written intelligently and realistically and, throughout the film, one is left with a very favorable perception of Cruise’s character. Towards the conclusion of Lions for Lambs, this positive sentiment is sort of torn down and shown to be, perhaps, only individual and selfish ambition embodied in fiery and patriotic language. No doubt, there was some desire by the talent behind the film to manipulate the viewer to see all Republican politicians backing the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to be, like Cruise’s character, ultimately self-serving. Call it naivety, but I am convinced that there are those in offices in Washington that believe in the causes for the same genuine and noble reasons that I do. Side note: given President Bush’s very authentic passion during Petty Officer Monsoor’s Medal of Honor presentation, I feel that we can count the President as one of those driven by genuine convictions.

Since assessment of Cruise’s character is left somewhat ambiguous at the conclusion of the film I will excuse the production for any Leftist propaganda that may have been intended. Surely, it could have been directed much more explicitly. All that being said, given the very passions of the character, I could see how the Senator could very well be the individual whom my Mom saw my personality embodied.

As far as the two students-turned-soldiers are concerned, I have very good reason to detect that my Mom did not – however surprising this may be - have their characters in mind when she was reminded of me. They only resemble me in the fact that they attended college and were in the military. Their personalities, however, are much different than my own. Especially when I consider how much I am more comparable to other characters in this film. Those points being true, the two most emotion-provoking scenes in Lions for Lambs involved these two characters. I held back tears twice. During the early half of the film, the scene flashes back to the two characters as students presenting their case during a debate; they concluded their arguments by offering, in surprising fashion, two letters confirming their enlistments into the Army. For nearly inexplicable reasons, I found this scene tug at my gut. What’s unexplainable is why one would feel so intense reaction to a scene that was inevitable: the viewer had already known that both these characters ultimately ended up in the service. The other emotion-provoking scene was, not surprisingly, when both soldiers chose to trade their lives for their dignity by accepting their fatalities by standing rather than remaining face-down in the snow, prone to easy capture.

However, the student in the office of Robert Redford’s is one that I can empathize with completely. The commonalities are deeper than both of us being fraternity brothers. I would like to believe that, like the student in the office, I am a fairly gifted student. I would also argue that, given the right environment, I am prone to begin in-class dialogue amongst the students in a fashion similar to that demonstrated by the character in the film. Just as staunchly, however, I would present the case that I am a highly motivated individual, whom – like the character in the film – badly desires not only guidance but someone influential to emphatically drive those motivations.

For example, on my proverbial plate, I have the opportunity to accept a rather significant internship in Washington D.C. over the summer. Of course, because of a situation that I have burdened myself with concerning the military, that internship seems to be one that I can not, in reality, accept. On the other hand, I have a great opportunity to finally gain that Special Forces qualification and life-changing commitment that I have desired for so long. Yet, I find myself happily married to academic goals. Each of these opportunities, while all great individually, naturally draw together in such a way that accepting one inevitably cancels the others. The desires of youth – an ambitious, passionate youth at that – have left me yearning for my own “moment in the office.” While I feel that my personality is embodied by the student-character, my life has not yet afforded me the experience that the character is enjoying throughout the duration of the film.

So where does Lions for Lambs leave the viewer? In conclusion, my most encompassing reaction is one of surprise. The film was wrought by individuals openly opposed to the wars and unashamedly politically Left-leaning. Yet, they created a film that hardly crammed their agendas down the viewers’ throats. Ultimately, the film was thought-provoking. Had it not been, I would not be currently 2,000 words deep into writing an initial reaction. A film having such power should be complimented. Just as easily, however, one could make the point that there “is nothing new under the sun” in Lions for Lambs. This film, really, just allowed the viewer to see from the outside the same arguments that we have each been consumed by since September 11th, 2001. In that sense, it was not ground-breaking. But for encouraging and reigniting dialogue that genuinely needs to be continued without being overly biased, Lions for Lambs should be recognized as one of the more important films (at least of those I have observed) in the past few years.

Finally, I want to conclude with a final digression. Much of the film hinges on the theory that enemy fighters are funneling from Iraq into Afghanistan via Iran. This is interesting because the Persian / Arab, Shite / Sunni conflicts that have existed in this region for a millennium now would make this occurrence seem unlikely. In fact, when Senator McCain recently made such allusions, it was seen as a mistake. Democrats even used McCain’s statements to demonstrate his lack of handle on foreign situations. Is it not intriguing that a film with left-leaning backing would use such a tactic, and thus demonstrate it as being at least possible, as an essential plot device?

I look forward to your comments. Feel free to respond here or via email. Thank you.


cf said...


Let me be the first to say that I think you should do what you can to accept the D.C. internship. I don't know the details, but I can't see why the internship and the Special Forces qualification have to be mutually exclusive. Liberal or conservative, I think that we can all agree that we need passionate and informed political leadership. If the Special Forces qualification is important to you, then by all means pursue it. I hesitate though when you say that you are still seeking a "life-changing committment." It seems to me that you have already had an experience of this sort. While I may be over-reading this statement, I also don't think you have anything left to prove in this regard. You are obviously very eager to serve our country in one form or another; you just need to figure out which path best suits your skills, your dreams, and the country's needs.
About the movie, your critique seemed fair (you were easier on the film than the film critics) and you struggled to remain open to a political message different than your own. I would recommend taking the next step and dropping the language of "liberal bias"/"leftist propoganda" and all that you associate with these terms. While our country and our political discourse is highly polarized, it seems to me that what's at stake is too important to contort the reality into our black and white perspectives. I think your piece as a whole is a testament to your seeking a more nuanced view of our political realities so I will leave it at that.
As for Bush, I share your intuition that he is probably a person motivated by deep conviction. That being said, I would not take his tears as substantive evidence of that fact. He, like all of us, has plenty of reason to cry.
I was a bit confused by your final comment about the relationships between Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan. Are you suggesting that because liberals made the same mistake as McCain, this is somehow proof that Iran is in fact at the root of both conflicts? Maybe I missed something here, but that doesn't seem persuasive.
Finally, what I am left wondering at the end of the piece is why your mother was so adamant that you see the film. Maybe she will respond and fill us in.
Thank you for directing me to your blog and to your insightful comments about the film. I apologize for the length and didactic tone of my comment but, alas, I am one of your professors. The good news is that I can vouch for how hard-working and successful Steve has been as a student at USF.


P.S. "Spy Games" is your favorite movie? I am going to have to start showing more films in my classes.

Diana said...

Well, were do I begin?
Let me start with this note, Steven has all the talent in the family for the "written word" so please excuse my rambling as I am much better verbally than on paper.
Now, as the mother of this "Educated Soldier" I am quite proud of him in all of his endeavors, past present or future.He has made some good and bad decisions in his life and has (in my opinion) become a better man for them.
In response to CF, I wanted Steven to watch this movie for several reasons. He was this movie!
I know that this may not make sense to you but let me explain. He is the college student sitting in that chair across from Robert Redford and debating with his professor. He is also the student that went to war but was fortunate enough to come back home.
I can see a part of him in Tom Cruise's part,minus the suit and tie :), maybe a future he doesn't even see for himself but I see it. I can also see him as "the College Professor" stating the facts to a student who may or may not listen but Steven would engage the student just as Robert Redford did in the movie. Politics is in his future, one way or the other and you maybe right about the internship but timing is everything and he can not do both. He must make a decision that will change his life forever. As a mother, of course I do not want to see him go back into a war but as a person who knows him well, I know that if he does not try for this he will forever be saying "what if"?
His strenght is his mind being set on one goal and do that one thing to the best of his ability and give it 110%.I don't think he is trying to prove anything by trying to qualify for SF, it is just something he has wanted to do since he was in high school and he now has the opportunity, so my motto is "nothing ventured, nothing gained".
I can not see him in a 9 to 5 job, as that is not in his nature but maybe as his Professor you see a side of him that I haven't.
I could go on and on but let's end with this. He has come a long way and any path he decides to take I will be proud of him.
Thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to respond to his blog and truly be interested in your students. Bravo!


cf said...

Mrs. B.,

Thanks for responding. So Steve had it right, there is a bit of him in many of the film's characters. I have not seen the movie but I am not surprised that this is the case. His future is full of many and diverse possibilities. I won't pretend to know which one is right for him. The discussion is poignant for me as a family in my synagogue lost a soldier in Iraq recently (U.S. Army Maj. Mark E. Rosenberg). My wife and I saw his photo on the Lehrer Report last week; it was a terrible experience. I am certain that Steve will make the choice that is right for him. I firmly believe in the power of following our passions. I would just feel like I was not doing my duty if I did not suggest that there are other equally important possibilities available to Steve. To be honest, I know nothing about Special Forces. I would imagine that it is one of the more demanding and intensive paths and that it typically leads to a career as a military officer. Are there any politicians who have taken the Special Forces route? I would also be curious to know what other military careers are possible for someone with Steve's analytic and language skills? Is it possible to get a law degree on the military's dime? Certainly the military must need lawyers. I would be a much better conversation partner in this discussion if I actually knew something about the armed services. In any event, I deeply respect your strength in supporting Steve as he makes this difficult decision. I fully concur that you have every reason to be proud of him no matter what choice he makes.


Diana said...

I am sorry to hear about the lost of one of the members of your synagogue.
Life is precious and my heart goes out to that family.
On the matter of the military needing lawyers, I am sure they do and that would be a good move for Steven, to pursue that goal
with the help of military grants. I don't think he is looking to become an officer, even though I think he would make a good one:) but he wants the achievement of this goal (SF) he has set for himself and I am sure that he will achieve it. Once he sets his mind on something, there is little anyone can do to sway him:(
It will interesting to see what the future has for Steven and I am glad that you have had a positive influence in his life as he respects your opinion and looks forward to your classes.
Thank you again for taking that extra step and truly be interested in your students. It means a lot to me and I am sure to Steve also.


Noel Hadjimichael said...

read the blog a few years ago and re-read this posting just now; excelent, fair minded and balanced review of a movie that encaptures the demands we place on both leaders and citizen soldiers; best wishes, hope the last few years have been good