The filmmakers must have imagined sparky, engaging conversation between these duos similar to a high-speed tennis bout between skillful pros; what emerges is more comparable to a lazy afternoon table-tennis knockabout in an old people’s home. While these pairs talk and talk and then talk some more, either directly or indirectly touching on some current and always broad American political divisions, we witness some action in the dark mountains of Afghanistan and the tragedy of two soldiers played by Derek Luke and Michael Peña. We later discover that these two young men are former students of Redford who, considering how best to engage in political discourse, have boldly decided to enlist. And so with these two men on the mountainside, the film’s plot is complete: Redford and Carnahan know all too well that ‘important’ Hollywood movies these days must have circular stories that tie together different, apparently unrelated strands in a flash of slightly corrupted chronology. That way lies universality, greatness and sometimes even awards.
Back to the two soldiers – I’m not sure whether we’re meant to think that these young men are regretting their choice to join the army or that we’re meant to see them as ordinary heroes as they find themselves surrounded by shadowy armed figures on a deserted mountain-side. They emerge as both – not an entirely different perspective to writer Matthew Michael Carnahan’s recent ‘The Kingdom’ in which he also argued that Our Boys – or Their Boys – are suffering the effects of poor decisions by central government. It’s a crafty – some might say cowardly – way of ensuring both dissent and patriotism in the same film. There’s another scene here in which Cruise gives a monologue, the message of which amounts to: ‘Don’t ever forget 9/11’. He’s a smarmy politician and we’re not meant to trust him, yet the music blares up for this speech. It’s have-your-cake-eat-it time.
politics of this film are basic beyond belief, which would be
acceptable is they weren’t also so muddled and unconvincingly
expressed. Apathy is a theme: the promising student is obviously a
symbol of latent intelligence which, if roused, might make for a more
varied and powerful political debate among the American people. Yet
this tack is heavily compromised by the casting of the director in the
role of the selfless humanitarian with a message; personally, I don’t
like being lectured by Hollywood millionaires, especially when their
script bears little evidence of real engagement with ideas. The
conversation between Redford and Garfield – about grabbing life by the
balls, about avoiding regrets, about whether to engage or just to coast
along through life – is not very interesting or credible. It’s very
stagey, and its point is made early on. Some lines are designed for
Oscar-night clips: ‘Rome is burning son,’ says Redford, ‘and the
problem is with us.’
Over in Washington, the pairing of Cruise and Streep has a little more dynamism to it. Cruise is fairly charismatic as a teflon politician who tries to charm and flatter Streep into delivering the good news of a new offensive action in Afghanistan, batting away any suggestions that there might be a draft coming and declining to dwell on past errors. But Streep looks like she doesn’t buy a word of her character’s apparent transformation from willing servant of a television network to someone who two hours later throws her editor the most hackneyed line – ‘You were good once’ – while refusing to spin in the usual fashion the government story fed to her by Cruise. Are we meant to believe that this woman who writes features for Time magazine and is a leading American journalist with decades of experience is only jolted into chronic self-doubt and able finally to see that television networks may push a populist agenda after an unexceptional hour-long conversation with a senator about a quite unremarkable foreign policy development? I know Tom Cruise is meant to be charming, but come on... The look on Streep’s face says it all: unconvinced. When she steps out of an anonymous government building in Washington, we’re supposed to recall ‘All The President’s Men’. That film puts this nonsense to shame.