Buddhist dignity. Red Chinese oppression. Sit-downs with the Dalai Lama. Narration by Martin Sheen. Voice-overs by Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins. It's enough to give Sean Hannity fits ... and maybe send the more skeptical, SUV-deprived members of the modern left running for the john with a serious case of soy-sensitivity overload.
Not so fast. Though "Tibet: Cry of the Snow Lion" has all the earmarks of a hopelessly Californian kum-ba-ya sing-along, this soaring, sobering documentary reminds us just why that stereotype follows the Tibetan dilemma around in the first place: The multinational business interests that consider China a dream market have everything to gain by marginalizing the plight of the Lama's people, spinning it as the exaggerated concern of a culturally elite fringe.
So no matter how overheated Sarandon's line readings get -- here, she provides unnecessarily urgent translation for the recollections of a Tibetan nun -- it behooves us to remember that she's not the enemy. The point is made mere minutes into director/cinematographer Tom Peosay's wonderfully crafted, user-friendly position paper, which traces the Tibetan crisis from the origin of Buddhism to today. Opening with a stirring vignette about Champa Tenzin, a heroic monk who rushed into a burning police station to protect his countrymen during a 1987 riot, the movie depicts with you-are-there excitement the major developments in the country's struggle for autonomy. Simply incredible footage of public uprisings and military atrocities keeps your head spinning as writers Sue Peosay and Victoria Mudd paint the clearest picture possible of a nation's nonviolent resistance to brutal subjugation. As a travelogue, it's nonpareil, full of picturesque vistas that reinforce the natural beauty of this divinely situated "rooftop of the world."
The movies throws out expert witness after expert witness (I stopped jotting down attributions after seven talking heads), but it never succumbs to the kitchen-sink confusion engendered by the typical overpopulated documentary. The filmmakers have compiled a seeming multitude of concerned parties on all sides of the issue, then whittled their respective testimonies down to only the most salient observations; wisely, their credentials are repeated on screen almost every time they appear. That sort of detail is what separates a well-intended film from a great one.
So thorough is the cinematic journalism that you'll swiftly forget what a challenge it must have been to document or simulate all of the key moments in a story that spans thousands of years of history. There's even a local angle, with footage of the now-shuttered Splendid China attraction juxtaposed against the conversion of Tibet's sacred Potala Palace into a paid-entry museum. Such thought-provoking associations easily sustain us through the movie's uncharacteristically pedestrian conclusion, which briefly but regrettably shifts the focus to the Western pop stars who have embraced the Tibetan cause. "Cry of the Snow Lion" has already convinced us that its subject matter deserves our attention; there's no need to oversell the point by reminding us that goddamn R.E.M. cares about it, too.
And just when we'd learned to live with Susan Sarandon ... .