Every storyline has its problems. Redford plays a professor. Two of his former students are in Iraq, a storyline which is supposed to concretize the anti-war discussions but seems out of place, as though scenes left over from an action movie were spliced into another film. The Streep/Cruise journalist-meets-NeoCon-senator storyline is well-acted but too thin. The disillusioned-student-meets-political-science-professor is interesting, but lacks answers for all of Redford's moralizing. The questions that dog the student are: what is the point of trying to change society when our avenues of doing so are corrupt? and what is the difference between trying and failing and not trying at all? Redford's character could have answered simply: virtue (at least in terms of the second question). Sadly, the movie just didn't work.
However, I was pleased entirely with Mike Nichols' film "Charlie Wilson's War" (written by Aaron Sorkin and based on the book Charlie Wilson's War: The Extraordinary Story of the Largest Covert Operation in History by George Crile). Tom Hanks and Philip Seymour Hoffman both provide excellent performances. Hanks plays Rep. Charles Wilson, a glad-handing, womanizing liberal Democrat from Texas. Hoffman plays Gust Avrakotos, an explosively frustrated CIA agent who knows that the U.S. has reason to care about the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Charlie delivers the funds and political backing for stopping the Soviets, Gust provides the know how. As an aside and just to be clear, any covert 'war' cannot be a war at all. Still, the end of the film heart-wrenchingly displays the lack of justice in U.S. foreign policy of the last twenty years by hinting at the ease with which we'll pay for guns but fail on softer forms of diplomacy.
The film, though more subtle, probably has a more helpful message than "Lions for Lambs." Simply, we (citizens of the U.S.)need better memories. In the popular historical consciousness, WWII is the big war, followed by the Civil War, the pesky Vietnam War, and then the Revolutionary War and WWI. These are the backdrops for Iraq. We forget about our occupations of Nicaragua, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic. We forget that our CIA organized the coup that killed the Iraqi president, bringing Ba'ath Party to power and Saddam Hussein back from exile to be head of the secret service. We forget about the CIA's actions overthrowing elected officials in Iran and Chile. Put simply, the U.S. isn't exactly an "A"-student when it comes to foreign policy in the last 100 years. Like the plumber who fixes a sink only to leave either the job incomplete or several leaking pipes, our military fixes have been problematic and unreliable. With better memories, we might stop calling the same plumber. "Charlie Wilson's War" at least nods to some failures that allowed the Taliban to come to power and does so through telling a worthwhile story and without being preachy.
Lastly, I also highly recommend "Juno." Roger Ebert wrote:
Jason Reitman's "Juno" is just about the best movie of the year. It is very smart, very funny and very touching; it begins with the pacing of a screwball comedy and ends as a portrait of characters we have come to love. Strange, how during Juno's hip dialogue and cocky bravado, we begin to understand the young woman inside, and we want to hug her.I couldn't agree more. Ellen Page plays the part of Juno MacGuff, a 16-year-old girl who gets pregnant, and after a trip to an abortion clinic, decides to have the child. But what to do with it? She decides to give the baby up for adoption. Already the alternative girl who is into punk and slasher films instead of pop music and romantic comedies, the film portrays well the added stigma of being pregnant without turning its focus from the life and feelings of main character. The film is filled with delightful lines...Juno: "Yeah, I'm a legend. You know, they call me the cautionary whale." Sometimes Page's character seem a pinch too mature (maybe 18/19 instead of 16 years old), but it truly is a lovely film. It is nice to have Michael Cera and Jason Bateman in the film together (though it reminds me of how much I miss Arrested Development), Jennifer Garner is finally in a film I actually like, and there's a cameo at the beginning for The Office's Rainn Wilson. Everyone who saw "Knocked Up" should have waited for this film instead. "Juno" is funnier and actually has characters you care about.
Has there been a better performance this year than Ellen Page's creation of Juno? I don't think so.