Beware of any movie with an ad campaign grounded in a 1980s bumper sticker. In the case of Robert Redford’s Lions for Lambs, it’s “If you don’t stand for something, you might fall for anything.” The film is Hollywood’s latest and perhaps bravest attempt at offering a critique of the war in Iraq, the current administration and public apathy (or ennui or malaise). Bravery, alas, does not necessarily translate into a good movie.
While I applaud Redford for making this film, and while I agree with nearly every observation it makes, I cannot in any way say that it’s successful. Nor do I think that it will overcome the same apathy (or ennui or malaise) that sunk In the Valley of Elah or Rendition at the box office. Now, I’ve heard it said that those movies (and this one presumably) have died at the box office because audiences are out of sympathy for the message, that viewers want stories showing a victorious America etc. If that were the case, then The Kingdom ought to have been a hit, and while it performed better (probably because a lot of things blew up in it) than the others, it hardly qualified as a hit. Whatever the reasons for the lack of interest in these movies, I don’t think it has much to do with political ideology.
The whole point of Lions for Lambs is to slap the audience in the face with its own disinterest and complacency. The whole problem is that it is altogether too genteel to qualify as a slap, and the case it puts forth is too contrived and mannered to feel like anything other than a lecture—and not a very fresh one.
The film is told in something that at least resembles real time as it follows three concurrent events. Ace reporter Janine Roth (Meryl Streep) interviews neocon Senator Jasper Irving (Tom Cruise), who wants her to play up his “new” strategy for winning the “war on terror.” Meanwhile, we see that strategy being implemented in the film in sequences involving two soldiers (Michael Pena and Derek Luke) trapped on a snowy mountaintop by enemy soldiers. At the same time, college professor Stephen Malley (Robert Redford) tries to break through the apathy of a student (Andrew Garfield) he thinks has the potential to make a real difference in this world; Malley tells him the story of two students—the same ones trapped on the mountaintop—whom he tried to talk out of joining the army.
It’s an intriguing premise that might have had the slap-in-the-face effect desired had the drama been better. Unfortunately, only one-third of the film really works—the segments with Streep and Cruise. The Redford scenes are helped by Redford’s undeniable screen presence, but hurt by the unsympathetic playing of Andrew Garfield as the supposedly promising student. These scenes are also hampered by the fact that there’s so little done to disguise the fact that they’re little more than Redford lecturing the viewer.
Still, for me, they work better than the warfare scenes. Despite the fact that the battle scenes are obviously intended to be the ones that open the film up and give it scope, they come across as excessively theatrical. Once the two soldiers are stranded on the mountaintop, the scene feels like a play being performed on a fairly elaborate stage. I couldn’t keep from being reminded of the scenes from Ed Wood’s dreadful war play in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood (1994). I kept waiting for Sarah Jessica Parker to be lowered onto the stage bearing the “dove of peace.” This was not, I suspect, the desired response.
The Streep-Cruise scenes, however, have the power the rest of the film generally lacks—thanks less to Cruise’s portrayal of the detestable senator than to the nuances of Streep’s performance. Cruise is good—he hasn’t been this good since Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia (1999)—but his is a fairly simplistic performance, a picture of lethal-minded faux goodwill. His best moment comes when he refuses to allow Streep any ground on the stacked-deck question, “Do you want to win the War on Terror? Yes or no. This is the quintessential yes-or-no question of our time.” Streep, on the other hand, gradually comes to the chilling realization that she—and the media she works for—has created the smiling monster who has backed her into a corner. And then she has to realize that the news-as-governmental-mouthpiece she’s part of won’t allow her to do anything but present the “facts” she’s been handed, even though she knows these facts smell to high heaven.
The three aspects of the film finally do come together in the way Redford obviously wanted. We see the senator’s new plan (which is really a rehash of an old, failed Vietnam strategy) fall apart as soon as it’s implemented. More, we see the ultimate depiction of public apathy and the bottoming out of the news media in not just the way that news is handled, but in the way the real story holds little interest for those watching. At this moment, Lions for Lambs has genuine importance. The problem is that the drama doesn’t actually support the message. There’s the setup, some sharp scenes, a lot of meandering and then—bam—the message. The film arrives at a strong climax that it simply doesn’t deserve. In its favor though, Lions for Lambs has the good sense to get in, make its case—however clunky it may be—and get out in under 90 minutes. The sad thing is that even at that brief length, it feels padded. Rated R for some war violence and language.