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Politics, Decisions And Consequences, With Lots Of Talking, To Prolong Or Abridge An American Crisis

The PopcornReel.com Movie Review: "Lions For Lambs"

By Omar P.L. Moore/November 9, 2007

Office Education: Robert Redford as university professor Stephen Malley, a facilitator of thought, in "Lions For Lambs", which he directed.  The film opened worldwide today.  (Photos: David James/United Artists)

"Lions For Lambs" has its heart in the right place, but what is projected on the screen from Robert Redford's new film doesn't translate quite so well, even if it resonates only in the final few minutes, albeit briefly.  "Lions" talks and talks a good political game, and even if the game of political salesmanship is a seductive one at times, as exemplified in Tom Cruise's character U.S. Republican senator Jasper Irving (whose rhetoric and politic-speak is more than a faint echo of the current U.S. president Bush), Mr. Redford's film falls amazingly flat, simply because there isn't anything compelling enough in Mr. Redford's three-act-film to hold our attention, other than the obvious overriding concern about the state of America's current war, troops and their foray into Afghanistan (or Iraq for that matter.)  As a result, the film emerges as a disappointment rather than a triumph in conscience-raising.  While the intent may have been to provoke thought, the effect one is left with is emptiness.  Granted, Meryl Streep's character becomes the film's most urgent one (she plays Janine Roth, a veteran political journalist in the mold of White House reporter Helen Thomas) -- if only for one scene -- a scene which doesn't involve her interview of Senator Irving in his Washington, D.C. office.  Roth spends time with Irving, verbally sparring and questioning him about his support of the president's missive in Afghanistan and the presence of U.S. troops across that region, over the course of one-hour -- the same one hour time period that governs the two other stories in "Lions For Lambs", which opened worldwide today. 

One of the other stories involves Mr. Redford, who as Dr. Stephen Malley sits in his office at "a university in California" before class starts, with one of his students Todd (British actor Andrew Garfield in his American film debut), whom he spends an hour challenging, to make a decision about his future in school and beyond it.  "Doc" Malley regales Todd with a significant anecdote about two of his previous pupils Arian (Derek Luke) and Ernest (Michael Pena), who decide to enlist in the U.S. Army and go to Afghanistan.  Arian and Ernest, in their bravery and courage as they fight for a life of freedom and justice, evoke memories of Pat Tillman, the real-life NFL football player who forewent a million-dollar contract to continue playing with the Arizona Cardinals in order to fight for the U.S. as a soldier in Afghanistan and Iraq.  Arian and Ernest have clearly thought about their decision to make a difference in the world in some way, a difference beyond themselves.  But what of Todd?  Todd, a free-loading student who is whip-smart and wise-cracking, is arguably the film's most important character.  Some of the student-professor scenes have a nice rhythm to them, but one can't help noticing the ham-fisted moralizing, languorous paternalism and self-importance dripping in some of the dialogue of Professor Malley, even if Mr. Malley (and Mr. Redford) have the sincerest of intentions. 

Pressing An Agenda, Or Pressing The Public?  Meryl Streep as veteran political journalist Janine Roth, in "Lions For Lambs".

The other of the three stories is a flashback sequence involving soldiers on the ground in Afghanistan, in a mission devised in U.S. military central command by a commander named Wirey Pink (Peter Berg), who realizes that he isn't exactly in command as much as he thought.  Each of these three stories are interwoven, but the break in the dialogues of the two more talky stories is somewhat frustrating, as the military sequences aren't as key to the film as the dialogues in Washington, D.C. and California are.  You want more from both the Redford-Garfield and the Cruise-Streep exchanges, more to sink your teeth into, but "Lions For Lambs" merely touches the lightest of surfaces, delicately tip-toeing around the edges of a lot of fodder that would be ripe for animated discussion and thought, discussion that would presumably galvanize and rivet viewers, in the same way that the exchanges in "A Few Good Men", another film featuring Tom Cruise, did.  (Although the Afghanistan scenes have some punch in one or two places, they look like leftovers from a war film that cut its extemporaneous footage.) 

For "Lions For Lambs" to have really hit home, it should have developed weightier arguments and scenarios than it does.  This failure is the film's central weakness.  In some places director Redford seems to hold back, as if reluctant to challenge his audience beyond a certain point or threshold.  Assumedly a number of American moviegoers have at least an elementary idea about U.S. involvement in Iraq, Afghanistan and of the events that brought the U.S. into those countries over the course of the last six years, so why not push the moviegoing audience a little more?  Perhaps Mr. Redford was concerned about potentially alienating his audience, but in employing restraint he may have underestimated its intelligence.  (The answer to the question of whether "Lions" should restrain its topical themes for the sake of "entertaining" or to challenge audiences more thoroughly at large depends on which audience demographic the director is aiming "Lions" at.)  If, where intelligence and insight are concerned, American television personalities like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert can generate political food for thought through satire -- most of which resonates unmistakably louder than a lot of the thoughts and sentiments in "Lions For Lambs" -- then surely Mr. Redford (a noted political activist and conservationist) and his film could so easily have done the same with its subject matter and put up its political dukes a lot higher.

So What Will You Do For the Red, White and Blue?  Tom Cruise as the slick, charismatic Republican U.S. senator Jasper Irving, in Robert Redford's "Lions For Lambs".  The film opened worldwide today.  It is the first film under the new and revitalized United Artists studio, revamped by Mr. Cruise and his producing partner and new UA CEO Paula Wagner.

Matthew Michael Carnahan has the distinction of penning two underdeveloped -- or at least underwhelming screenplays (certainly in terms of their structure) which have landed on the big screen in the U.S. in the space of the last six weeks -- both involving Peter Berg.  Mr. Berg directed and appeared in September's "The Kingdom", Mr. Carnahan's other script -- a film that had its own share of political imbroglios and flaws -- but was at least more alive than what is on offer here for a lean and extremely threadbare one hour and 28 minutes.  The camera shots (cinematographer Phillippe Rousselot) and staging that look best in "Lions For Lambs" are in Senator Irving's office, where a glow sheens off the back edge of the chair Senator Irving sits in.  (This lighting style may be as much about the crisp, neatly-packaged megastar-wattage of Mr. Cruise as it is his budding presidential wannabe character.)  The film was shot in January, February and March of this year, and is the first under the new United Artists studio, which has been redeveloped and revitalized by its CEO and Chairman Paula Wagner, and Mr. Cruise, Ms. Wagner's producing partner.

The reality is that "Lions For Lambs" would have played much better on the Broadway theater stage (sans Afghanistan scenes of course), or in global movie theaters in December 2003, or in October 2004 (see "Fahrenheit 9/11", which was released in that U.S. presidential election year), but for various reasons, on the big screen in November 2007 Mr. Redford's film feels much more like a celluloid talking points memo from both sides of the American political aisle than a stimulating or thought-provoking drama.  As the end credits roll, one feels that "Lions For Lambs" needed more spice, more critical-question raising, and more substance than it ultimately offers.

"Lions For Lambs" is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for war violence and some language.  The film's duration is one hour and 28 minutes.  

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