LIONS FOR LAMBS (dir. Robert Redford)
There are basically three levels of debate. The first type is often called the slam dunk, the common sense position (racism is wrong, children should be protected) that rarely gets a legitimate rebuttal. If and when it does however, the opponent typically looks foolish, battling against an established maxim than no one really challenges. Then there are the unwinnable clashes—conversations about abortion, God, musical taste, etc.—that even King Solomon himself couldn’t resolve. It could be because there are too many internal facets to each side to successfully maneuver, or it might have something to do with how personal the positions really are, but no one can ever win during these discussions, no matter the side.
And then there are the arguments at the center of Robert Redford’s surprisingly inert Lions for Lambs. Floating somewhere between the obvious and the impossible, this anti-war diatribe wants to be as fair and impartial as its left leaning capacities will let it—and it wants to accomplish this by using the mightier pen, not the far more cinematically interesting sword. Scribbled—literally so—by Kingdom writer Matthew Michael Carnahan and wearing its well meaning intentions as far out on its sedentary sleeves as possible, this is a thinking man’s thriller, except both the brain and bravado are hardly engaged. We are meant to see the three intertwining stories here as all possible paradigms surrounding the War on Terror. Sadly, not a single one adds up to a moment of significant clarity.
We first meet seasoned Washington reporter Janine Roth (Meryl Streep) as she prepares to meet Senator Japser Irving (Tom Cruise). He has set aside an entire hour for a one-on-one “interview” over a new military strategy in Afghanistan. It turns out to be more of a con job than a confab. At the same time, a wise old college professor named Stephen Malley (Redford) is having a meeting with one of his more promising students, Todd Hayes. He hopes to convince the boy to do more with his college career, and his options afterward, than merely selling out and seeking a cushy, cash heavy career. He does this by explaining what happened to a previous pair of outstanding underclassman, Ernest Rodriguez and Arian Finch. They took Malley’s words to heart—and ended up joining the Army. Now serving in Afghanistan, we see how the new policy in the Middle East, as outlined by Irving, has the duo dealing with issues they never anticipated. In the end, all involved must decide which side of the fence they reside on, and how that determination will affect their ethos, and their life.
From the above description, Lions for Lambs should be a barn burner. From a more than competent cast to a whirlwind approach to the subject (think Babel by way of the John Birch Society), the idea of paralleling fates tested with those behind the scenes marginalizing said destinies has enough aesthetic potency to plow through any number of clichés or jingoistic jolts. And for a while, one gets the impression that this film will pull it off. Redford, who deservedly won his directing Oscar for the pristine Ordinary People, gives us impressive set-ups, complicated cross cuts, and a feeling that we are about to enter a Category 5 human hurricane of politics, personalities, and philosophizing. All we have to do is ride it out and enjoy the metaphysical life or death experience.
And then the storm never comes. Instead, it just drizzles for 90 minutes before turning dull. What should be aggressive comes across anemic. All the high minded ideas being tossed around like buoyant buzzwords end up aimed squarely at the smallest percentages of the lowest common denominator. For all its studied sturm and drang, Lions for Lambs is superficial, piecemeal, and woefully unprepared to argue its points. It’s high school level forensics, novice division vs. big time verbal firefights. The most compelling element of the storyline—the gifted if disenfranchised young men who decided to use the military as a means of making a difference (their logic is suspect at best)—is marginalized by a movie that wants to pound us over the head with “Bush is Bad” pronouncements until we acquiesce. While such a sentiment may be valid, it could be handled in a far more rational manner. Indeed, all the animosity Cruise and Streep spit at each other over the media coverage of the war and the GOP response to same could very easily apply to Redford and Carnahan as well.
You see, Lions for Lambs might appear to play fair, but if one could glimpse behind this Wizard of Fixed Odds’ curtain, they’d see a bunch of high minded hippies holding “Down with LBJ” placards. This is a movie using Vietnam as a slightly skewed way of describing our current Middle East policy, and while the analogy might have some play, the conclusions are clearly light years apart. No Asian country plowed two commercial airliners into our New York skyline, and while the Domino theory had very little long term regional resonance, our current thickheaded policy in Iraq has put us in a catastrophic Catch-22 dilemma. We can’t win, but we can’t leave—at least, not cleanly. As some pundits have suggested, we are no safer than when our bedeviled President declared “Mission Accomplished. But the fear of post-evacuation havoc has us so spooked, we can’t see a logical way of leaving.
Lions for Lambs plays these particular cards, and Cruise is so expert at delivering these carefully crafted swindles that you wonder if Scientology automatically disqualifies an actor from seeking higher office. Unfortunately, his cohort in conversation (for the first time in her career, Streep is a cipher here) constantly low balls his ludicrous pronouncements. Instead of challenging him, she keeps waiting for Irving to step on his own dicta. It never happens. It’s the same when Malley takes on Hayes. Redford is dermabrased and ready to dig in. He’s got his conceptual combat boots on. But as the role of up and coming idealist, Andrew Garfield is as blank as a fart. Watching his vacant, disconnected performance, one’s not sure if he’s playing a slacker, or simply inhabiting the personification of sloth. He is intellectually dead, emotionally sparse, and above all, unworthy of the movie’s championing.
Which, of course, leads us back to Rodriguez and Finch. While their storyline sinks along predicable military missteps, there are some genuine moments between the characters. As played by Michael Pena and Derek Luke, we get a real sense that both are the kind of individual who deserve our motion picture attention. They don’t come across as forced and feigned—though, again, their rationalization for becoming grunts leaves a lot to be desired—and we sense in them the gravitas missing from almost every other aspect of the film. By the time we’ve reached the anticlimactic conclusion to the other two tales (Cruise and Streep at stalemate, Redford and Garfield purposefully vague) we find ourselves wanting more of the dedicated duo. In a film filled with half-assed heroics, they remain the only victors.
This is why Lions for Lambs is so inexcusable. It shouts the loudest, pounding its flimsy fists on the desk for ineffectual dramatics. In a season which has seen equally limp interpretations of our life and times (In the Valley of Elah, Rendition), Robert Redford and his well meaning company of civil shills have a big fat, slightly damaged, diatribe to sell you. It doesn’t get great mileage, and isn’t very dependable, but if you like your positions on the retractable side of extreme, this overly verbal vehicle will get you to where you want to go. It’s stagey and talky, more off Broadway than broadminded, and there will be some who cotton to such expositional exercises. If you want to see superstars yak on endlessly however, Inside the Actors Studio is still on—and it’s a lot more politically astute than this overdone discussion group.