Film puts stars on frontlines of political debate

As a flurry of films about Iraq and terrorism march in and out of theaters this fall, one title with major stars and major political attitude faces a rather unique marketing challenge.

As co-head of United Artists, Tom Cruise shepherded “Lions for Lambs,” in which he also stars with Robert Redford (who also directed) and Meryl Streep. It is a remarkably strident political work that takes dead aim at the Bush White House and assails post-9/11 foreign policy, especially the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, putting its stars on the frontlines in this era’s fiercest political debate. Early indications suggest it isn’t yet clear how Cruise will package his own views.

Signaling a return to the bigscreen after an eventful absence, Cruise made his first public appearance for “Lions” at a packed screening Thursday night. The event was a fund-raiser for the Pelham Picture House, a 1920s theater just outside Gotham.

In a Q&A moderated by Peter Travers of Rolling Stone, Cruise and screenwriter Matthew Michael Carnahan spoke about the film’s impassioned critique of the government’s strategy. Originally conceived as a stage play, the film blends three storylines: Cruise as a rightwing senator doing an interview with TV journalist Streep; Redford as a college professor teaching one of his students about the importance of political engagement; and a more cinematic look at the battlefield consequences in Afghanistan.

The $35 million film has the political thrust of a vintage Costas-Gavras film, so there was no avoiding the matter at the Q&A. Yet Cruise didn’t exactly morph into Tim Robbins, preferring to stay largely above the fray and offering measured comments that the film was trying to “open up serious questions for the audience” and that the script was “timely.” It was clear that he hadn’t decided exactly what positions to stake out and was using the event as a rehearsal for his views, which will certainly face scrutiny in the next two weeks.

When Cruise has voiced his personal opinions in recent years — about Scientology or depression, for example — it has cost him in the public eye. His public comments during the launches of “War of the Worlds” and “Mission: Impossible 3” got him into hot water with his fans and the industry that had made him a top draw for two-plus decades.

Carnahan was far blunter at the Q&A, saying he felt the film argued that the politics and strategy of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were wrongheaded and that the media led the public down a false path. Whenever Travers or an audience member lobbed a question at the pair about a specific political point, Carnahan jumped in.

“Lions” is Cruise’s first release since being ejected from the Paramount lot and seeing his formerly unassailable image seriously bruised in the media. It is also the first release from MGM’s newly reactivated UA label, with which Cruise and longtime producing partner Paula Wagner forged a relationship one year ago. He is producing and starring in UA pics, while she is serving as its chief exec.

Cruise said he had made the film out of deep respect for Redford’s body of work, which he said had inspired him since “Ordinary People.” According to Carnahan, Streep saw the script first and then helped get first Redford and then Cruise into the fold.

Wearing his mogul hat, Cruise endorsed the pic as “the kind of film United Artists should be making,” which suggested the film’s politics appealed to him at least on that level. As one of the film’s guiding hands off-camera, it is fairly remarkable that Cruise would cast himself in the right-winger role. At most other times in his career, the 45-year-old Cruise might have played any of the pic’s other roles.

From Pelham, Cruise and Carnahan immediately embarked on a European promotional swing, where the film is aiming to garner support ahead of its Nov. 1 berth as the opening film at the AFI fest. Premieres at the London Film Festival tonight and the Rome fest Tuesday night will be followed by other screenings across Europe.

Those guiding the film’s campaign said the gameplan all along had been to avoid conventional options like Toronto and try to build a singular profile centered on the film’s three stars. Trailers and TV spots also underplay the intense political content and instead sell the stars. The one-sheet, with the stars faces against a white background, bears the tagline, “If you don’t stand for something, you might fall for anything.”

The star treatment was certainly accorded Cruise at the Pelham screening Thursday. The event was technically off-limits to the press and was therefore dominated by worshipful fans who didn’t press Cruise the way he is likely to be once the film’s opening arrives.

Lost amid the political intrigue was one interesting revelation that usually, when it involves a top star, is capable of being a story unto itself: Cruise said what he really wants to do is direct.

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