Robert Redford, Julie Taymor: America At War
By Bernard Weiner, Co-Editor
The Crisis Papers
November 20, 2007
I saw two movies last week, one exceptional (Julie Taymor's "Across the
Universe") and the other disappointingly so-so (Robert Redford's "Lions
for Lambs"). Both films speak to the prevalent confusions, moral lapses,
corruptions of spirit in the CheneyBush era. And, despite the heavy,
at-times depressing material they're dealing with, both are ultimately
uplifting in their own unique ways.
In "Across the Universe," Taymor seems to be using the Vietnam War-era
and "The Sixties" in general -- roughly mid-1960s to mid-1970s -- as her
surrogate for today's America enmeshed in yet another war and
occupation, this one in Iraq. The through-line vehicles for telling this
story are the glorious music/lyrics by The Beatles, which is to say
mainly by John Lennon and Paul McCartney, with a bit of George Harrison.
Her film has a plot, of sorts -- about love found and lost and found
again -- with real characters, but the spine of the film is, as it
should be, this stupendous music. (I could hear people around me in the
theater quietly humming or joining in occasionally on such numbers as
"Hey, Jude," "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds," "Revolution," et al.)
Rather than simply use lip-synching to the actual Beatles' recordings,
Taymor -- the compelling director of Broadway's "The Lion King," and the
films "Titus" and "Frida" -- lets the actors lend their own styles to
the popular songs, within scenarios about what's happening around them
and to them as the decade goes from innocence and idealism ("I Want to
Hold Your Hand") to chaos and despair ("Helter Skelter").
There is plenty of documentary footage of the anti-war and civil-rights
protests, along with in-country footage from 'Nam, but Taymor also
re-creates key moments in '60s history that aid her in shaping her
unique artist's vision of the period. So skillfully are those
re-creations of mood and moment (which include her signature use of
puppets and rousing, muscular group-dance movement) that one rarely
notices the transitions between those scenes and the documentary
footage. She does depart from this in her exceptionally striking,
psychedelic cinematography in scenes where her characters are tripping
on acid and grass, climaxing with gorgeous underwater ballet shots.
SHIFTING THE PARADIGM
I don't think Taymor is urging today's American youth to re-create the
"The Sixties"; after all, there were a hell of a lot of mistakes, many
of them deadly, made by the activists and hippies of that era. Rather,
what I think she's implicitly saying is that activism in the face of
unjust wars and repression can create its own momentum for change. A
cultural "tipping point" can be reached that can shift the prevailing
Many of us then-youngsters active in the '60s naively believed we were
riding the crest of tectonic shifts in history, that social revolution
was about to radically transform everything around us if we just pushed
a little harder to knock down the pillars holding up "The
Establishment." It didn't quite work out that way, but it was our
positive oppositional energy that helped fuel the major changes and
reforms that did occur in, and immediately following, "The Sixties,"
some of which still resonate decades later.
There isn't as much of that hopeful energy among young people today,
especially when facing a political system that seems much more
out-of-control, repressive, warlike, secretive and nasty than anything
Americans faced back then. (Although, we should remember that Vietnam
was no walk in the park: more than 58,000 American troops died and
perhaps one million Vietnamese troops and another million civilians.)
"Across the Universe," in that sense, is a call not to arms but to
opening our minds again to possibility, to hope, to fun, to our creative
impulses. Thomas Jefferson certainly believed in the cleansing power of
periodic revolutions ("the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time
to time") in order to shake up the system and move society forward
toward the making of a "more perfect union" in this country and to peace
and justice abroad.
After experiencing "Across the Universe," one leaves the theater
uplifted and more positive. Yes, there are heavy, downer moments
captured in the film, but the music and lyrics of Lennon and McCartney
(and Harrison), and the constant captivating imagery of Taymor, and the
mostly non-violent activism shown that resulted in so much change back
then, takes you out the other side and almost makes you believe that
"all you need is love."
REDFORD'S "Lions for LAMBS" MOVIE
Mass citizen activism and dissent, or the lack thereof, are also at the
heart of Robert Redford's "Lions for Lambs" movie, but in a much more
oblique, controlled, and ultimately disappointing way.
There are three overlapping plot strands to "Lions for Lambs":
1) An ambitious Republican senator (Tom Cruise), aiming to run for
President, grants an exclusive interview to a veteran network reporter (Meryl
Streep) about the country's new aggressive strategy that will bring a
U.S. "victory" in Afghanistan. The plan consists essentially of setting
up mountain outposts to draw the Taliban/al Qaida forces out in the open
to attack the mini-forts, which would make "the enemy" vulnerable to
Predator surveillance and high-tech U.S. bombing/strafing runs. U.S.
soldiers as "bait," as it were.
2) A liberal professor (Redford) is chagrined that his best, brightest
student (Andrew Garfield) is failing to use his potential to make a
difference in the world. He tries to convince the student to abandon his
materialistic pursuits and become actively engaged.
3) Two of the professor's former favorite students (Michael Pena, Derek
Luke), who joined the Army as their form of activism, are in the first
wave of troops carrying out the new tactics in Afghanistan that were
discussed by the senator. The situation, as often happens, doesn't
unfold the positive way the neo-con theorists dreamed it up in their
It isn't hard to figure out that Redford really is talking about
CheneyBush's "surge" strategy in Iraq: The Administration needs
something, anything, to spin positively, for its own political purposes.
Streep's character keeps trying to get the senator to talk about how the
U.S. got itself into such a catastrophic war, but Cruise's senator says
that's old, useless history. He refuses to acknowledge that the mistakes
made early help explain why U.S. war strategies don't work -- old, new,
"surge," whatever -- especially when there is precious little political
reconciliation among the local warring factions.
Redford, like Taymor, is addressing the issue of how citizens can and
should use their energies, their brains, their bodies, their idealism,
to react to the negativity and repression that buffet them daily.
GOOD INTENTIONS GO AWRY
Strange: Redford is notorious as a liberal icon, and one gets the sense
while watching the film that he's reined himself in, to keep his red-hot
political views in check. That reticence, and perhaps a desire to reach
ordinary middle-class American citizens by lowering the political
volume, may be the movie's undoing.
The intent of the film is admirable: to elevate ordinary Americans out
of the cesspool of immoral politics that CheneyBush have helped create.
But the script by Mathew Michael Carnahan is deficient: long on talk and
short on drama. (First rule of script- and play-writing: Show, don't
As a result, the film, as directed by Redford, comes off as a static,
muddled but heartfelt civics lecture on the value of getting involved in
what you believe in. But who knows? Maybe the elementary civics lesson
may actually reach more undecided Americans than if Redford had gone
full-out with his political anger.
I'm not sorry that I saw it; the very making of this kind of film --
which assumes that audiences have an intellect and like to exercise it
-- is a testament, however botched, to positive progressive faith.
But I think I'd much rather go watch movie-movies like "Redacted,"
"Rendition" and "In the Valley of Elah," even though these hard-hitting
films amount to preaching to the choir since the American public several
years ago came to the conclusion that the Iraq war and occupation were
disastrous mistakes and needed to be ended ASAP.
One can hope that all these commercial Hollywood movies, and the large
number of anti-war documentaries (for example, the excellent "No End In
Sight"), will do the trick of firming up 2008 opposition to CheneyBush
and the Republicans (and those Democrats) who enable them. Which
suggests that If history repeats itself, an Iraq-war equivalent to the
rightwing 'Nam-era film "The Green Berets" should be released any day
Copyright 2007 by Bernard Weiner
Bernard Weiner, Ph.D., has taught
government & international relations at universities in California and
Washington, worked as a writer/editor at the San Francisco Chronicle for two
decades, and currently serves as co-editor of The Crisis Papers (www.crisispapers.org).
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