For an American traveling internationally in the war on terror age, it is always an adventure. The recently released movie “Lions for Lambs” raised many questions that reminded me of this feeling. While recent polls suggest that the whole world looks at America in an unfavorable light, it is almost stunning how much people from Cairo in the heart of the Middle East, to Paris in the heart of Europe, have a soft spot for America. It is the pop culture, the democracy, the freedom and the rest of it. This was the case before September 11, and even six years after that horrible day. There is one major difference between now and then. People you meet in the streets abroad, regardless of their level of education or political persuasion, always have the same message. They believe that the era of Americanism is a sun setting. That the mistakes we made over the last twenty years starting with supporting a radical version of Islam to defeat communism, then failing to recognize the growing danger and finally, over reaching after the terrorist attacks, are in their opinion, taking a toll. That America is now living in a world of paranoia, and unilateralism, that it has become, over time, too arrogant for its own good.
My argument always has been that mistakes happen everywhere, and risk always exists, but America will survive as a great nation because it has a system of checks and balances. This system helped our nation through some of the darkest moments in history starting with the civil war, through Vietnam and even beyond. Therefore, America will always learn from its mistakes and grow stronger. Checks and balances, in my mind, is the only safeguard against mistakes with historical proportions.
A recent movie and the reaction it generated from critics and audiences alike forced me to question this logic. The movie’s name is Lions for Lambs starring Robert Redford, Meryl Streep and Tom Cruise. The movie is not a typical Hollywood epic; instead, it has more in common with the European style movies with limited scenery, limited actions, and plenty of debate to chew on. Throughout the movie, there are three semi-independent storylines.
A debate is brewing between a journalist and a senator on a new initiative in Afghanistan as a new beginning in the war on terror. The politician insists that mistakes made in the past have been admitted by the government and now it is time for the press to be patriotic and help educate the public on the new initiative. On the other hand, the journalist is making the case that the press needs to do their homework and not just represent the government’s version of the story otherwise the media becomes a mouthpiece for the government.
The second story line is a debate between a professor and his talented young student as he attempts to reengage the student back in a political science class he abandoned. The professor argues that change can never happen without people’s participation, that unless we exercise democracy we will have no democracy. The student, however, thinks that the system failed his generation, and the only logical and peaceful way to demonstrate his dissatisfaction is through the refusal to participate.
The third storyline is depicting two young soldiers that fell behind the enemy lines during the initial stage of the new military initiative. These two soldiers are ex students of the professor. They believe that only through participation in the fight against terrorism they will earn the right to demand change in their country. They argue that building America, the fair and the beautiful, will happen when every American steps in and reaches out.
Times like the one we live in are and should be a time for healthy debates. The movie is raising valid questions about the role of journalism in modern day society where mass media shapes public opinion in unprecedented ways, and the government is an active participant in this process. The role of short-term politics represented in the need for a quick win by the senator, and how it dictates long-term policies such as the new initiative in Afghanistan. The movie also puts on the table a question mark about young people actions represented in the two soldiers or the lack of action represented in the third student and the price young people might ultimately pay in either case.
This movie surprisingly earned D+ by the audience and C+ by the critics at Yahoo reviews, which is lower than the ratings for movies such as “Dumb and Dumber.” The fact that legends such as Meryl Streep, Robert Redford, and a star such as Tom Cruise took part in the movie inspired me to find for myself what kind of flop these giants got themselves into.
After watching this movie it became apparent that reviews such as “where is the John Wayne spirit?”, “Pure garbage,” “If you hate America you will love it” and many others are addressing a movie other than the one I saw. Is it possible that we as Americans are exercising a self-censorship that we have not seen since the days of McCarthyism? Is it possible that in such an environment there is no place for checks and balances? Is it possible that people in the streets of Paris and Cairo are right and I am squarely wrong? These questions on top of the ones posted by the movie need real answers unless asking questions is unpatriotic!