Here's a little scriptwriting 101: if you can do it instead of say it, go with the action. These are "move"-ies after all. But there was a time, at the advent of sound recording, that they were called talking pictures. In the hands of Peter Berg, a movie taking on the complexity of opinions and facts about the Iraq war comes out like The Kingdom, the Jamie Foxx / Jennifer Garner actioner that bowed in late September and made less than 50 mil at the American Box-office. In the hands of Robert Redford, we should expect something a little different. That would be this month's Lions For Lambs. Both of these films were scripted by Matthew Carnahan.
Released on November 9th, Lions for Lambs is starting it's third week yet still hasn't crossed the 15 mil mark. The film is, somewhat oddly, divided into thirds, each with a different cast and a different POV on a story that seems to be happening as we are being told the tale. And aside from the sequence that actually takes us into battle, the story is indeed "told" to us. From one side, in a spirited exchange between an ambitious, very republican Senator and a seasoned but fading journalist, and on the other, a seasoned and fading college professor and a young, ambitious, bright and questioning student.
What begins from the earliest frame is an examination of the "issues" as we witness a playing-out of sorts, of the results of each of the talking points we're eavesdropping on. The technique and the film in general brought on fairly negative, though not scathing, reviews from critics in practically all corners. The box-office has been dismal and the outlook likely isn't all that bright on DVD. That is, unless some word of mouth intervenes and creates an appreciation for the wide perspective that the technique allows. Throughout the film, I kept thinking that it would be an interesting excercise to bring the thing to off-broadway. Even imagining the cast, sitting panel-like and doing a simple stage reading could have been even intriguing. Erase the expectations of what we're trained to see at the movies and perhaps this well acted dialogue may have grabbed far more attention. I have to think a theater would be packed if the characters were to walk out after end credits to continue the conversation.
So does "talk" get in the way of telling a story in an action oriented medium? Taken strictly on content, my answer is no. Taken on what we expect when we go to the movies, I hesitate to encourage any filmmaker to follow Redford's example. Extending talk sequences in movies can run serious risks, not the least being utter boredom. This is difficult stuff to pull-off and not many directors have Redford's finesse with high caliber talent or his sensibility about clean tight dialogue and efficient story telling. Reford's first takes committed to film as a director came in 1980's Ordinary People, winning him an Academy Award® for Best Director as well as getting the nod as Best Picture. Go take a look (it's well worth it) and you'll see that what lays out are talking points. The disfunction of a family going through crisis isn't all that far removed from Lions for Lambs' tale of a country going through a crisis of monumentally dysfunctional proportions. The guys good at this stuff; it's valid and if you let your guard down, very easy to be absorbed in.
If movies need not be jam-packed with action to serve their audiences, discounting the "Rambo" mentality of grunted dialogue against explosions, does each story a writer and director tell, demand that they take a side, present a bias or for that matter even wrap up a conclusion? Here the answer depends deeply on tapping talent. On this count, Lions for Lambs is very successful. The talent level is first rate in every category. (Along with it's high profile trio on the poster, Lions for Lambs delivers terrific performances from all of it's supporting cast, of note in particular are Derek Luke, Michael Peña and Andrew Garfield.) The storytelling is clear and purposeful, interestingly staged and well edited (every bit as important in presenting heavy dialogue as intense action). This is solid filmmaking. It simply isn't visceral filmmaking. It is the aftermath of shock and awe, and that's is certainly valid ground to be exploring in story, no matter what the medium.
If you would like to be challenged a bit, feel like an exploration of thought rather than foreign locales, or simply enjoy dropping in on an interesting conversation as if eavesdropping at a good cocktail party, see Lions for Lambs. If nothing more, it's an essential trip into the careers of all of it's leading actors. I'd love to hear your thoughts.