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The advocates 

Lions for Lambs and Darfur Now reveal why and how people take action

Over the years, Robert Redford has used the Sundance Film Festival to spark the independent spirit in American filmmaking. You can see a similar independent streak running through his first directing effort in seven years, Lions for Lambs, but here the notion of independence – and how Americans define and act on it – comes under scrutiny in a time of war.

Redford also co-stars as Professor Stephen Malley, a former '60s radical who sits on the faculty at an unnamed California college. As he spends a good chunk of the film engaged in the most intense student/teacher conference imaginable, Malley struggles to convince a bright but apathetic student, Todd Hayes (Andrew Garfield), to take a political stand.

But political activism is not something that inspires well-to-do, career-minded kids like Hayes.

Worlds away, the scenario is flipped, and this time it's the younger generation making the challenge. In one of her fiercest roles yet, Meryl Streep plays Janine Roth, a TV news veteran who has watched her once hard-hitting station being consistently dumbed down. She finds herself in the uncomfortable position of needing – but fearing – the exclusive story dangled before her by the demonically grinning, ambitious young U.S. Sen. Jasper Irving (Tom Cruise). Irving has a scoop: The Americans are beginning a campaign in Afghanistan that will escalate their Mideast stratagem. Roth can take the story and risk promoting the government's agenda, or she can walk away. But as her editor reminds her later, bucking the system in middle age with an elderly mother to care for may not be the shrewdest idea.

And in the third vignette, two of Professor Malley's former students from the hard-knocks side of town – Ernest Rodriguez (Michael Peña) and Arian Finch (Derek Luke) – take Malley's plea for engagement in national affairs literally and join the Army. While the debate rages between liberals and conservatives, Ernest and Arian fight on the distant battlefield. As the purest voices in the film and the symbols for Redford's patriotism, Ernest and Arian bridge the philosophical cud-chewing with the dire gravitas of action films.

Lions for Lambs strikes a compellingly strange note with its mix of both patriotism and left-leaning angst. It has the tone of a highly verbal '30s stage play from a socially conscious playwright of the Clifford Odets school.

But what makes the film interesting is how attuned it is to class and power. It is the difference between the moral certitude of a Republican senator and an ever-doubtful journalist. And it expresses the very different worldview held by working-class kids such as Rodriguez and Finch and spoiled, upper-class ones such as Hayes. While Hayes zones out in front of the frat-house TV, others risk their lives for the cause of America.

Darfur Now is also a film about advocacy. It addresses the sense of helplessness that often grips Americans when they look at a place such as Darfur. Director Ted Braun's documentary follows a group of six people -- Africans, Europeans, South Americans and Americans who have made stopping the genocide in Darfur their mission. Though no one is on the same page in Lions for Lambs, in Darfur Now there is at least consensus among this group of activists and aid workers. Government-backed Arab militias have been carrying out a genocidal policy of rape, murder and destruction against African farmers in Sudan.

These outspoken advocates for the Sudanese are all over the map, including a female Sudanese rebel who has taken up a machine gun after losing her baby to the government militias. They are celebrities, such as Don Cheadle, who in the film notes how he can use his celebrity status to help the people of Darfur. And they are everyday Americans such as Adam Sterling, a part-time waiter and activist; the recent college grad has made Darfur his cause. In one scene, Braun films Sterling on a sunny day outside what looks like an L.A. farmer's market, trying to get the prosperous and disinterested locals to sign his petition to end California's ties to the region.

Like Lions for Lambs, Darfur Now probably takes on more than it can handle. In addition to Braun's overloaded lifeboat of six activists, there are numerous, far too cursory sound bites from the men, women and children in Darfur whose lives have been destroyed by the genocide. In the end, it's all just too much: too much continent hopping, too many voices, too much information, five stories too many. The result may be to reinforce the viewers' own sense of futility at a disaster as enormous as this one.

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