On Robert Redford

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Munching popcorn in a cinema, Wong Soak Koon ponders over a string of intriguing issues such as involvement in society, erosion of media ethics, and culpability for loss of lives in times of war.

The dimly-lit cinema in Mid-Valley Mall was empty. I was the first one in to watch Robert Redford’s “Lions for Lambs”. Five minutes before the film started, a few others walked in to make up an audience of nine. There was no way Redford’s thought-provoking film could compete with “Enchanted” or “The Magic Compass”, films which transport you to fantasy landscapes so that you can leave uncomfortable social-political baggage behind. “Aiyah! Why go to movies to think?” says a friend, “You got not enough to worry about, ah?” Another chips in, “I like my good and bad guys clear. Blur, blur, tired-lah.”

For Robert Redford, “Lions for Lambs” comes after a seven-year break from the director’s chair. Redford says: “I’m worried about my country. I’m a little bit in mourning for what I have known as pretty great things in my life. I have never seen my country in as bad a shape as it is now” (an interview reported in theSun, 13 Nov 2007 ). He adds: “So what can I do about it? The only thing I can do is to create a drama that would put certain things out there for people to think about, because if we don’t get involved somehow, some way, it will continue and I don’t know if there will be many chapters left.”

My individual response after watching the movie is to ask: What are the “pretty great things” Redford mourns for? What does the film suggest “involvement” to mean? Each person who sees this movie will have her/his own way of thinking about the issues raised and there may be no clear answer of any kind.

Redford himself is careful to say: “We don’t provide the answers” echoing the French novelist, Andre Gide, who once declared that to state a problem is not to presume it solved in advance.

A wide swathe

The immediate action backdrop to the film is the continuing US engagement in Afghanistan. When the film starts, an ambitious, forceful young politician, Senator Irving (played by Tom Cruise) is being interviewed by Janine Roth, clearly a well-known media person (played by Meryl Streep). The issue is a so-called new strike strategy for US troops in Afghanistan using small group engagements. It is the Senator’s “baby”.

The camera then shifts to various locales in a simultaneous exploring of intertwined lives. We move from the Senator’s office to a Californian university campus. Robert Redford plays a political science professor, two of  whose students, Suarez (Chicano) and Arian (an African-American with a singularly strange name) have enlisted and are then ordered into the icy heights of the Afghan mountains as members of the new small-group strike force.

The camera “eye” takes us to the combat zone and then returns us to the campus. Sitting in his office, the Professor himself is engaged in a combat-of-sorts as he tries to get a young student, the seemingly disengaged Todd, who had skipped many classes, to shake off his nonchalance ( fake or real ) so as to get Todd to care about the state of his country     and perhaps of the world.

Clearly, Redford explores a wide swath of American society: Capitol Hill, academia, the mass media, the Army and, at the back of it all, is the hidden and not-so-hidden hand of global capitalist economics. Add to these, the Taliban, Senator Irving’s mention of Al-Qaeda and an Islamic force that, unlike America’s Islamic allies in the Middle East, cannot be appropriated, and Redford has his directorial hands very full indeed.


Culpability

But this is not a film about the Taliban or Al-Qaeda. Redford’s focus is his own society. Something of those “great things” whose passing he grieves for may be salvaged. In some ways, Redford reminds me of George Orwell who admits to being a cynic-romantic (a vexed combination).

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Let me look at each of the locales the film explores beginning with the interview in Senator Irving’s office. Photos of the young Senator, taken with key persons like Condy Rice, Dick Cheney, Colin Powell and, not least, President Bush almost over-stamp young Irving’s Republican affiliation. A framed Harvard degree and a photo of Irving in West Point uniform (he had done brilliantly in that institution) testify to his intellectual and military credentials (even if the military experience may be in training only as it isn’t made clear if the Senator ever saw active service).

Irving’s impassioned rhetorical thrusts in answering his interviewer, Janine Roth, show his unabashed use of phrases like “axis of evil” (to name but one of his many borrowings from the Bush administration’s lexicon). He speaks confidently of the new small-group strikes as the way to winning in Afghanistan. Janine Roth’s reminders about Vietnam and her calling up of the ghosts of past mistakes elicit no response. It is as if Irving is a monologist.

And yet, can we simply dismiss Irving as an ambitious self-seeker writ large into a caricature? True, Redford doesn’t let Irving off easy: personal ambition, egomania, a self-righteous separation of “self’ and “other” ( we are democratic, they are terrorists ) – these traits are all there. Nonetheless, it cannot be denied that Irving’s beliefs ( powerfully conveyed in Tom Cruise’s portrayal) have an intense hold on many segments of American society after 9-11.

Thus, like them, hate them or feel in-between about them, Senator Irving and his ilk (and they need not all be Republicans) are all around and they will tell their supporters that their kind of “involvement” is the only guarantee of American democracy. Indeed, after 9-11, some governments outside the US can and have appropriated the term “terrorist” to bend constitutional laws within their own national borders. What sort of “involvement” can we choose to challenge the likes of Senator Irving?

Senator Irving constantly interrupts Janine Roth when she struggles to remind him of the past. He insists on speed, on the way forward. He has no use for retrospectives. Reminders about Vietnam, a recall of the arming of Saddam are completely ignored. Roth isn’t even portrayed as a strongly combative news-hound out to get Irving at the jugular. She had herself once commended Irving – as yet another plaque on his office wall, with her words of praise etched on it, testifies.

Redford reminds us that we are all culpable in that we can slip into quick support of rising young politicians in scenarios where fresh political visions of the future are very much longed for. Our own idealism, or whatever, can prevent us from seeing that these “visions” may be more of the same, or worse. Perhaps the “involvement” Redford calls for here is vigilance and courage to tell an Emperor that he is naked.

Troubled conscience

Janine Roth herself is driven to ask what has happened to her past investigative daring. When she asks her colleague: “What has become of you?” she is also questioning herself as journalistic ethics battle realistic, pragmatic needs. Her colleague reminds her that she is 59 years old and cannot afford to take risks with her career. She also has a mother who needs 24-hour care (this is a very familiar worry for many of us facing escalating medical costs and uncertainty about government aid. Global health care economics haunts all of us ).

Roth cannot afford to lose her job. She is only too aware that the media shareholders will not tolerate profit-lowering honesty which will scare off  key advertisers too. As her colleague tells her, just give the “facts” (the irony is that these so-called “facts” merely amount to what Senator Irving spews out which must be unquestioned, unanalysed, Roth’s uneasiness notwithstanding ).

I remember another film, “Wag the Dog” starring Dustin Hoffman, about the spin-doctors surrounding politicians. Who is culpable? What kind of “involvement” does Redford hope for to redress the sorry state of ethics erosion in the mass media? Perhaps the fact that Janine Roth is seen as deeply-troubled gives us some hope.

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There are people still capable of a troubled conscience working in media empires. Roth (well acted by Meryl Streep) is left combating her inner doubts as she passes Arlington Cemetery with its homogeneous rows of white crosses marking thousands of soldiers’ graves (reminders of a mixed combination of heroism, folly, altruism and greed?).

Redford does not show us what Roth’s story of the interview with Senator Irving will be like and this is fine with me. It leaves us to share with Roth a tormenting balancing out of the costs of  being honest and not being honest ( if indeed such matters can ever be weighed out  well).

Problematic segment

The next locale and characters I turn to is the army command post and the two enlisters, Suarez and Arian, the Professor’s very promising students whom he had tried hard to dissuade from enlisting. What are we to make of their “involvement”? For me, this is the most problematic segment of the film. Why do Suarez and Arian feel that the Army is the answer, and why Afghanistan, in particular? Does the film dissociate them clearly from the power-driven policies of the likes of Senator Irving or does the screenplay leave these questions unaddressed in a satisfactory manner?

Certainly, on the personal man-to-man level there is a lot to admire about Suarez and Arian. Still mobile, although injured, Arian refuses to abandon his badly-wounded comrade, Suarez, in the snowy heights. The two die a valiant death refusing capture by the Taliban who close in on them. The pain-wracked Suarez tells Arian, “Help me up”. Both will die standing with weapons in their hands as they make a last stand in the icy Afghan mountains. Let me not be mistaken as belittling valour and comradeship. The saying: a man has no greater love than when he lays down his life for another man (in this case it’s dying with another man ) bears repeating.

And yet, what is the cause these men died for? This troubles me and I stand corrected if I have missed lines or nuances while watching the film. In the first place what made Suarez and Arian enlist? This isn’t very clear to me. In a project presentation as students on campus, both men critique those inactive, nonchalant young Americans who do not care to know about much beyond their own careers and other ambitions. What is more significant is their indictment of the almost willed ignorance many Americans have with regard to people of a  different class, ethnicity and culture both within and beyond their national borders. This can only result in stereotyping or worse, demonising. 

But then why enlist? How is this going to better the situation? Why tell the Professor who was trying to dissuade them from enlisting that they will serve in the Army first before coming back to improve their own society? Why do not Suarez and Arian, who are portrayed as intelligent young men, see the connection between US involvement abroad and deteriorating conditions at home?

Huge military spending certainly won’t help social-economic inequality at home or improve inner-city education. They themselves are from inner-city schools and as, the Professor says, it was by dint of hard struggle that they got to a good college. Surely they are perceptive enough to see the erosion of constitutional rights, the contravening of laws which the hunting out of “terrorists” at home can cause? Maybe I missed something while munching on too many popcorns.

The fact that they are minorities (Suarez is likely Chicano and Arian is African-American ) troubles me even more. I remember those imperial writers like Rudyard Kipling and Hugh Clifford (more familiar to us Malaysians ) who, at the height of Empire made the native characters in their novels seem like a ventriloquist’s dolls, voicing their support for Empire. To be fair, Redford is not like this at all. The lies, the failings of his own government are exposed.

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And yet, at the costs of sounding like someone who is dictating to the director, I would have been more satisfied if the film had some other character than the Professor give us a fuller discussion of Suarez’ and Arian’s choice. Otherwise, some may quickly conclude that American minorities are happily supporting the American will to police the world. The Professor’s analysis of both men doesn’t tell me much.

Non-involvement

Redford does expose the failure of the small-group strike strategy. In the command post, the commander can use high-tech equipment to monitor the engagement (he watches fuzzy figures radiating body heat on the screen ). But the foot soldiers in the combat field are simply at sea or, more accurately, snowed under in the formidable landscape of the Afghan mountains where it is impossible to see the enemy or to know if they are there. After their helicopter comes under artillery fire, the men have to bail out or crash. Earlier, the joking young soldiers in the chopper laugh about the outdated Taliban guns which they hear never work. Clearly, someone has underestimated the foe; someone may have seen them simply as anachronistic, feudal remnants, CIA intelligence notwithstanding.

The chopper goes down and young lives are lost, some body bags will have to be taken home and if these enlisters thought of themselves as “lions”, we can’t help but think of them as lambs sacrificed on the policy-altars of powerful figures in the Great Game of realpolitik.

The camera then shifts back to the Professor and the seemingly indifferent Todd (an intelligent student with potential who is from a much more affluent background than the tragic Suarez and Arian ). Todd’s non-involvement riles the Professor. And yet many of Todd’s comments on American society do arrest attention especially those connected to the so-called “good life” of late capitalism which we all, American or not, do pursue.

There is one poignant moment towards the end of the film when the camera shifts quickly from the deaths on the Afghan mountains to a university hostel where Todd sits with another student who is watching TV. What’s on television isn’t anything to do with world events. What is on are advertisements for goods such as whitening creams for those who want to get rid of splotches and spots!

Redford’s film ends with more questions than answers as it must be. There is some hope in the figures of Janine Roth, who will continue to be haunted by what to write or say as a journalist, and Todd, who now begins to question his prematurely cynical conclusion and reassess his own disengagement.

Orwell once said that the “innate decency” of people is seldom brought into the corridors of power. Nonetheless, like the true cynic-romantic, Orwell continued to believe in the capacity of people to make ethical choices. So too, Redford hints of those traces of “great things” which will still remain to trouble us as we pause from the consumption of goods and services to examine difficult questions.

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