Lions for Lambs

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David James/United Artists
Robert Redford/United States 2007

In its tone, content and structure Robert Redford’s Lions for Lambs, though it stars such icons as Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep and the director, is about as far from mainstream as movies get. It is, in fact, a quasi-experimental piece, focused entirely on the ebbs and tides of two crucial conversations, as well as the conclusions reached. Sure, it intersperses a more conventional combat storyline, but that action is transparently set in a fake, backlot setting, one obscured by dank, dark grays and lots of snow, and it becomes impossible to take seriously.

Therefore, the film poses a strange dilemma. On one hand, it’s easy to be frustrated by the lack of a narrative, occasionally fragmented characters and total absence of visual innovation. The cut-and-dry formality seems almost amateurish, and certainly beneath a filmmaker of Redford’s estimable talents. Yet, despite also being brazenly political and didactic, the picture resonates long after the end credits roll. It does so because the depicted discussions raise interesting and insightful questions not only about the present situation in Iraq, but about the malaise and indifference towards meaningful patriotic expression that has been endemic to a wide swath of post WWII American society.

Redford cuts between the three plotlines without much discernible logic, while their inevitable links prove convoluted at best. Yet, taken as individual constructs, two of the three hold significant power. In the most memorable, Senator Jasper Irving (Cruise), a rising young star of the Republican Party invites the journalist (Streep) whose fawning profile helped establish him as such to his office. The purpose: ostensibly to pitch her a new plan for winning the War on Terror, but really to offer an extended if circuitous apology for the political establishment’s bungling of it thus far. At the same time, Professor Stephen Malley (Redford) lectures a wayward student on the importance of personal responsibility, and the lessons he learned from two selfless former students, at his California university on athletic scholarships, who enlisted in the U.S. Army.

The final and least interesting strand follows those two men, Ernest Rodriguez (Michael Peña) and Arian Finch (Derek Luke) as they find themselves abandoned on a snowy Afghan ridge after the enactment of Irving’s plan falls through. It isn’t clear, except to emphasize the obvious risk involved in military service and the courage of the men and women participating in the precarious conflicts presently unfolding abroad, why Redford and screenwriter Matthew Michael Carnahan felt these scenes were needed. Yet, the rest of the movie presents such stimulating conversation that it is easy to forgive yet another flaw.

The dialogue emergent between Cruise and Streep exerts particular fascination. The verbal tug of war between the unreasonably confident senator and his wary interviewer suggests a wealth of complicated feelings towards their collective role in creating the national mindset that accepted and welcomed the Iraq War. It provides the picture of a politician, not unlike many in Congress today, relying on his bluster and charm in a last ditch attempt to reclaim his public standing by fixing the muddled Middle Eastern mess. At the same time, Cruise brings such humane conviction to his performance that it is also possible to believe that the character genuinely cares for the troops stuck there, and wants his plan to succeed for them even more than himself. In a lesser movie he’d have seemed the ultimate phony. Here, he is impassioned, genuine and more than a little scared. Notice the way his eyes droop and his smile fades when he receives a negative phone call.

Streep, angry at what she perceives as a giant duping by the Washington establishment, is hardened, cynical and very often near tears as she considers the ramifications of her contribution to the selling of the conflict. She greets the Senator with no end of skepticism and, in her desperate attempt to expunge her guilt and make things right, is poignant and heartbreaking. Redford’s performance exudes levels of wisdom and authority only generated by extensive life experience. His recounting of the stories of Ernest and Arian, especially his impressions of their idealism, lends the picture a sad, haunting dimension. As the filmmaker, he asks the audience to consider the fact that many of our best and brightest, those with a deep, abiding love for this country, are being regularly sent to die in an untenable, tragic situation.

Yet, like any great artist with something to say, Redford wants to do more than simply inspire reflection. To that end, the most crucial scene in the film might ironically be one seen in flashback, taking place before the tightly constrained, linear events depicted. In it, Ernest and Arian make a class presentation in which they suggest that the foreign policy principle of engagement has not been properly applied domestically. Put simply, the American public is not asked to sufficiently invest itself in the country’s greater good. To Redford, there is no other way to explain the considerable apathy that has overtaken a large swath of the population, a disinterest in matters of national concern that leads most of the privileged away from armed service and makes Britney Spears bigger news than Iraq.

Through Ernest and Arian, the filmmaker poses an intriguing possible solution. Best to experience it organically, as explicated in Carnahan’s screenplay, rather than reading about it here. Suffice it to say that it gets to the core of the issue at hand and, if it’s not clear that Redford himself believes it entirely workable, has the potential to provoke an important national conversation. Therefore, though Lions for Lambs features some major flaws, the film deserves credit for admirably forsaking conventional audience expectations in an attempt to influence present socio-political discourse. As a work of narrative cinema it has its weaknesses, but as an act of provocation it demands an audience.

© 2007 Robert Levin. All rights reserved.

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