Lions for Lambs
|Tom Cruise||Senator Jasper Irving|
|Robert Redford||Dr. Stephen Malley|
|Meryl Streep||Janine Roth|
|Directed by||Robert Redford|
Lions for Lambs, Robert Redford’s heartfelt call for Americans to get involved with what’s going on with our foreign policy adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq, is hardly a movie at all. It feels more like a stage play. It’s structured as three shuffled one-acts, intertwined and separate but equal. Scenes end in blackouts, the scenery changes, and the lights go back up. It is virtually stripped of action (a couple of guys fall out of a plane and fire guns, but they don’t go anywhere.) It consists almost entirely of ideas expressed through dialogue. To that degree it resembles a movie like My Dinner with André, but without the intellectual surprises that seasoned that dish so pungently.
The three sections of this movie are set concurrently in different parts of the world. In Washington, DC, a journalist named Janine Roth (Meryl Streep) gets a one-on-one interview with a rising top gun in the Republican power structure, Senator Jasper Irving (Tom Cruise) .Irving has summoned her to his Senate office to give her an exclusive on a new offensive military strategy he has designed that is being launched in Afghanistan as they speak.
That strategy involves small units, moving in to enemy strongholds with dexterity, speed, and firepower. In the second playlet we meet two bright young GIs involved in the front line of that effort, the Hispanic Ernest Rodriguez (Michael Peña) and the African-American Arian Finch (Derek Luke.) Before long things go wrong on their mission and they’re stranded, one badly wounded, on a snow-covered Afghan mountaintop at night, as shadowy Taliban guerrillas move in for the kill.
The two soldiers were formerly favorite students of Professor Stephen Malley (Robert Redford) at the California university where he teaches political science. As we pick up this third thread of the story Malley is in an early-morning meeting with Todd Hayes (Andrew Garfield), a student who also has unusual potential. Hayes started off his college career like a ball of fire, but he has succumbed to the infectious disease of slackerdom. He seldom comes to class any more, coasts on his gifts, and seems content to drift into adulthood with no purpose other than finding the path of least resistance to the easy life.
All three of these threads are stitching away at the same sampler. It reads “Get Involved”; it’s a civics lesson on taking responsibility for who and what we are as a country. The most interesting is the Cruise-Streep section. Their event begins almost flirtatiously, as the senator grins and chuckles, and the reporter giggles and arches her eyebrows ironically. It’s a riff on the incestuousness of the relationship between power and the press in our nation’s capitol, where access is the name of the game and lions lie down with lambs and devour each other for mutually assured digestion. (That metaphor is not the source of the title – it comes from the observation of a WWI German general about the leonine bravery of the British soldiers and the sheeplike stupidity of their officers).
Irving is no Cheneyesque villain. He’s charming, smart, and persuasive. His white smiling teeth are weapons grade. He sells his war plan as a breakthrough in strategy that will turn the tide in Afghanistan and restore the United States to its rightful place as the moral, spiritual, and temporal power of the globe. And Roth is no heroine. She began her 40-year journalism career as an idealist, but she has carried water for the powerful before, and she struggles with her conscience over the fourth estate’s complicity in the selling of the Iraq War.
In his student conference, Malley tries to prod the cynical Hayes by telling him about his two minority students who enlisted in the military to go to Afghanistan. Malley, a Vietnam vet courtesy of the draft, pleaded with them not to do it, but admires their commitment to taking personal responsibility, and their idealism in deciding they must have direct experience of what America is up to if they intend later to work for change.
The Finch/Rodriguez passage on the Afghan mountaintop is the least voluble, and the least interesting. Technically you may wonder how two men falling from the same plane a good five seconds apart could land within 20 feet of each other on the same snow-capped ridge, but never having tried it, who am I to judge? The point is the waste and the killing that war is about, and our disproportionate sacrifice of minorities.
The screenplay for Lions for Lambs is by Matthew Michael Carnahan, who also wrote The Kingdom. Both are concerned with the manipulation of foreign policy, but the latter is all action and the former all talk. Carnahan may be working toward a middle ground.
Meanwhile, Lions for Lambs offers plenty to think about. It’s no thrill ride, but it’s not often boring. It means to use the Cruise-Redford-Streep star power to get us talking about things we ought to be talking about. It doesn’t claim to be an explosion of original ideas, and it can be uncomfortably pedantic. Action audiences will turn away, conservatives will sneer, and jaded liberals will say they’ve heard it all before. But Redford seems willing to take that chance in order to try to keep the conversation going.
© Text 2007 Jonathan Richards - Filmfreak.be