Celebrated writer Janine Roth (Meryl Streep), who once tagged Senator Jasper Irving (Tom Cruise) as the future of his party, is invited to scoop a story on a new tactic in the war in Afghanistan by the now powerful politician. She has her suspicions about his motivations, and when Irving quotes a WWI German officer who admired the British grunts taking orders from supercilious officers, he epitomizes the sentiment of "Lions for Lambs."
With "Ordinary People," "Quiz Show" and "The Horse Whisperer," Robert Redford established himself as one of the best of the actor turned director breed. Unfortunately, "Lions for Lambs" feels more the work of an amateur than a seasoned veteran with its obvious, liberal message stamping it little more than a Public Service Announcement. I'm Robert Redford and I approve this message.
"Lions for Lambs" follows three story threads that, in one of writer Matthew Michael Carnahan's ("The Kingdom") only script strengths, weaves the seemingly unconnected one firmly into the whole, giving the film some much needed emotional heft. There is Professor Stephen Malley (Robert Redford), a liberal (natch) political science teacher at a California university trying to re-motivate once promising student Todd Hayes (newcomer Andrew Garfield), now smug and cynical. The seductive debate between senator and reporter provides the central theme and the movie's title. And finally, there are the real people involved in Irving's maneuvers, best friends Ernest Rodriguez (Michael Peña, "World Trade Center," "Shooter") and Arian Finch (Derek Luke, "Antwone Fisher," "Catch a Fire"), helicoptering to a remote Afghani outcrop, presumably deserted.
There are two big problems with "Lions for Lambs," the first being it's all too earnest and obvious statements. Blundering politicians are sending real live young men and woman out to be slaughtered. Decisions are being made by men who may be educated but who have no battle experience (Cruise's Irving boasts his high ranking West Point graduation, but serves behind a desk. He tells Roth past mistakes can be blamed on poor intelligence, then proudly counters her accusations of no service in the field with the importance of his specialty - intelligence gathering). The media is so obsessed with our celebrity culture, it simply sits back and feeds it audience with the propaganda handed over by a suspect White House. We are a complacent nation who eats this pabulum and fails to act for change.
Under Redford's direction, cinematographer Philippe Rousselot ("Constantine," "The Brave One") and editor Joe Hutshing ("JFK," "The Holiday") have done next to nothing to make the film visually interesting. Two wordy conversations are simply shot by cutting back and forth between talking heads with an occasional two shot thrown in. Even the Afghani action sequences feature two people on either side of the screen, albeit wounded and stranded in rugged, snow-covered terrain.
And it is the actors who play these two wounded soldiers who give the film its heart and soul. Peña makes Rodriguez smart and idealistic while Luke injects Finch with bravery and loyalty - the two are instantly believable as guys who love each other, whether in the classroom or in battle. Also good is Peter Berg ("Smokin' Aces") as their commanding Lieutenant, intently focused on the welfare of two of his men. The big stars are merely serviceable. Cruise's sharky intensity makes him an obvious villain while Streep looks more troubled (in case we haven't gotten the point, her post-meeting cab ride features her tearing up as she views rows and rows of white crosses in Arlington Cemetery, then the White House, from behind her window). Redford isn't stretching talking to the younger generation about the importance of becoming involved. The student Hayes is glib and snotty and Garfield puts that across well, but the film provides only one flashback to support Malley's interest in him and it isn't quite enough.
"Lions for Lambs" has all the best intentions behind it, but the big screen names behind it have given us a feature film more suited to the small one.
Robin did not see this film.
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