Lions for Lambs is a film that comes with a lot of baggage. It’s a test of Tom Cruise’s remaining marketability post-Oprah’s couch, and it’s an ambitious collaboration between three huge names — Cruise (who also heads the studio that produced the film), Robert Redford (who directs and stars) and Meryl Streep. Most obviously, the film deals with a weighty subject — or rather, a variety of them: the war in Iraq, the ethics of the war on terror, the responsibilities of the media, and the apathy of American youth. Not a simple piece of work by any means. But it is a straightforward one. Three major plot lines run parallel to each other for the duration of the movie, relating to each other in predictable ways. There’s lots of talk and some good action, but not much really happens. One realizes about halfway through that there are not going to be any clever twists or turns, which is fine in one way because what’s there is satisfying. But there does remain a sense of unrealized potential.
The movie opens with a sequence of graphs and news clips that beats the viewer over the head with the film’s subject matter—troops die in Iraq! Bush’s approval ratings fall! Enter U.S. Special Forces in Afghanistan preparing an ambitious operation to stymie Taliban growth in the countryside. Things go wrong, a helicopter is attacked, and old college buddies Rodriguez and Finch end up trapped behind enemy lines, injured and shivering on an exposed mountaintop. Cut to Washington, where Senator Jasper Irving (Tom Cruise) decides to give reporter Janine Roth (Meryl Streep) an hour-long exclusive interview about the very same Afghanistan mission. Irving is the young “future of his party,” first in his class at West Point and a neo-con’s wet dream who admits mistakes in the war on terror. Roth, on the other hand, is a fidgeting cynic from a big cables news network that has lost its sense of purpose. The scenes in Washington are actually surprisingly exciting — there’s nothing especially new or insightful, but it’s great to see on the silver screen a discussion about a subject that was so taboo just a few years ago — whether our response to 9/11 only made things worse. And the writing by Michael Carnahan is good enough that the acting — at least what there is of it — doesn’t even really matter. Meryl Streep disappoints in a big way, her awkwardness far too over-emphasized and her periodic expressions of emotional epiphany simply silly. And Tom Cruise may not have even needed a rehearsal — he pretty much just acts like Tom Cruise. His innate artificiality and somewhat creepy charisma are perfects fits for the role of a GOP politico. Of course, everyone in the audience realizes this, and Cruise is pretty much stuck playing himself.
This is why everyone laughs when Janine looks at pictures of Jasper with President Bush and other big names—they aren’t pictures of Jasper Irving, they’re pictures of Tom Cruise. Sorry, Maverick, but you can’t escape yourself. Despite the pleasure of watching Tom Cruise as politician (I was hoping he’d declare war on Xenu), the most interesting story in the movie is the hour-long meeting between Dr. Stephen Malley (Robert Redford), a professor of political science, and student Todd Hayes (Andrew Garfield). Todd has been called in because Dr. Malley sees great potential and great laziness. The kid is your quintessential apathetic youth, a call-out to all us freeloading college slackers out there. He spends his time with his girlfriend and his frat brothers, occasionally stopping by class and stunning the professor with his eloquence and intelligence. He’s a stark contrast to Rodriguez and Finch, who one finds out — ta-da! — were students of the very same Dr. Malley some few years back. The conversation between Todd and the professor is essentially a debate over the relevance of politics to everyday life, and the responsibility of young people to work for change. It may just be our demographic speaking, but this part of the film comes across as by far the most stirring and emotionally effective. Redford’s acting is phenomenal, and one gets the feeling that this is supposed to be the heart of his film—the hard questions and the call to action.
It certainly doesn’t leave you feeling adequate, that’s for sure. It’s a professional through and through, but it ends up being more of a film essay or lecture or even a piece of entertainment (minus a few kick-ass scenes in the Afghani mountains) than a real work of art. The Washington portion address the political questions of our current situation in the world, while those with the professor address the personal, and the scenes in Afghanistan show what really lies behind words like “sacrifice” and “will.” Lions for Lambs is not a masterpiece, but it does pull off the tough task of intelligently addressing serious and emotionally sensitive current events without once sounding preachy. If there is a message, it’s tied up with the quote that inspired the film’s title, a portion of a poem written by a German soldier about the British at the Battle of the Somme: “Nowhere have I seen such lions led by such lambs.” Our leaders are to blame, for sure, but so are we — and there’s no easy way out.