The news is bad in Lions for Lambs. As the film begins, you hear reports of roadside bombs in Tikrit and U.S. soldiers killed, the decline of “public perception” of the war. Familiar and dire, this brief inventory provides a pithy context for the three storylines that follow. All concern possible responses to the current forever war, and none is designed to seem adequate. The news is bad, the film submits, and so is any potential rejoinder.
Directed by Robert Redford and written by Matthew Michael Carnahan (who wrote The Kingdom), Lions for Lambs is most notoriously the first project coming out of the Tom Cruise iteration of United Artists. It is also a clumsy movie, full of ideas and not very thoughtful. Initially, its politics seem obvious; each plot makes the villain clear enough, even if the solutions remain fuzzy. Jasper Irving (Cruise), a senator with presidential aspirations, offers TV journalist Janine Roth (Meryl Streep) an exclusive interview, during which he lays out a plan for squashing the Taliban at last (something like the surge, only faster and leaner and more secret). At the same time — as the film’s elaborate crosscutting structure insists — Vietnam veteran and poli-sci professor Stephen Malley (Redford), tenured at “a California university,” meets with a disaffected student, Todd (Andrew Garfield), offering him a straight-up B for the semester if he only engages with the world, in particular, the current U.S. wars.
Also at the same time, these wars continue. The third plot follows Special Forces troops Arian (Derek Luke) and Ernest (Michael Peña), who also happen to be Stephen’s former students, as well as pieces in the plan Jasper is describing to Janine. That is, they are the young men of color who are acting out the plot the white folks are talking about.
This race dynamic is, of course, imbricated in the film’s bad news as well as history. Race has ever been a means to ordain difference and engender antipathy, to identify sides and set them against one another. Here, however, the deployment of race and difference is simplistic and disturbing, ironically complicating Lions for Lambs‘ seemingly obvious politics.
Initially, it appears that Arian and Ernie follow orders, as the film offers no explanation of how they’ve come to their current state, about to mount an assault on the “Tali.” Their commander, Lt. Col. Falco (Peter Berg) explains the mission by pointing out on the map but not naming Iran, point being that the eventual aim is to take on that pesky bad-bad nation, following groundwork in the Afghan-Pakistani mountains.
As the mission’s fundamental illicitness recalls that of the war Stephen protested when he came home (attacking nations not okayed for attack by Congress), the film seems to condemn it — at least insofar as the goals are articulated by the odious Senator Irving. But even as Janine parries with him, asking questions and visibly disbelieving the answers, stating outright that reporters, after Iraq, no longer trust their government sources, she also absorbs the guilt he assigns her: she and everyone else in the news business responded to the way “terror colored that [9/11] morning in shades we’d never seen before,” as well as opinion polls, and told stories that supported perceived public desires. “We both put our fighting men at risk,” charges Jasper. “I’ve admitted my mistakes, will you?”
He claims that everyone “needs a win,” and that this plan, at last, will provide just that. At the same time that Jasper pounds Janine, she punishes herself. When he leaves the office for a moment, she wanders briefly, looking at the photos that place him with other bad-faith actors (Cheney, Bush, Rice), finally coming upon a Time magazine cover story, a story she wrote eight years ago proclaiming Jasper the “future of the Republican party.” The camera cuts from the framed story to Streep’s miraculous face, which conveys in a subtle instant, layers of emotions: pain, regret, pride, frustration, grief, and anger.
It’s a breathtaking image, lasting mere seconds, and it suggests what’s lost in the rest of the film’s hammering. Stephen’s deal with Todd is disheartening, as he offers him the model of Arian and Ernie, scholarship athletes who had none of the advantages built into the smart white boy’s background. As Stephen sees it, Todd was once promising and engaged (that is, he “leaned forward during lectures,” and even when he didn’t do his homework, he was so opinionated in class that he generated “one of the most interesting debates [Stephen] had ever been a part of”). Stephen mourns Todd’s cynicism, his realization that the system works just the way you see it working in Jasper’s office — where politicians and journalists come to understandings and the rest of the population, feeling helpless and hopeless, turns on the Home Shopping Network.
The answer, suggests Stephen, is commitment. As an awkward flashback reveals, he was horrified when he learned Ernie and Arian were enlisting. “I did everything I could to stop them,” he tells Todd, “But I revered the reasons they went.” But those reasons sound confused at best, as the students explain they mean to “help” the people in the war zone and return more able to gain access to U.S. power structures, by politics and/or corporate entertainment. It’s a stunning revelation, making their reasons seem as invested in mythologies as anything Jasper’s pronouncing as he leans over Janine in his camera-ready suit.
Jasper’s meanness is clear enough, raced and gendered and classed in completely familiar ways. So too is the soldiers’ decency and faith, the lesson they offer up for Stephen and, he hopes, Todd. It’s tempting to recall here The Legend of Bagger Vance, also a well-meaning and completely wrong-headed story of hope and uplift embodied by a beautiful black mythological figure, played by beautiful Will Smith. Here, the filtered light and mystifying effects are less beneficent. Arian and Ernie lie crippled in the harsh snowy mountains, after falling from their helicopter during the mission’s first stages. Surrounded by enemies (who are tracked by greenish computer grids back at Falco’s base camp), they calculate their chances. Though Lions has barely considered how they came by their own choices, it’s clear they’ve been egregiously misinformed, turned into terms in someone else’s argument.