Is it too soon for an exemplary movie about Iraq, Afghanistan or the post-9/11 war on terror? Documentaries aside, only a handful of American films released thus far go deeper than the crawling headlines at the bottom of your TV screen. Some of the best movies about World War II were produced while it was still going on, but it took years for filmmakers to reckon with Vietnam. And evidently, it’s going to take more time to come to grips with the current military campaigns.
Robert Redford has recruited big guns Tom Cruise and Meryl Streep for his salvo against post-9/11 warmongering. The title, gleaned from a WWI-era poem that equated commanders with lambs who sent lionhearted foot soldiers to their slaughter, captures Redford’s fundamental point: the youngest and brightest are cannon fodder for decision-makers who never get in harm’s way. Not only does this pertain to every war, it was made with more plausibility in Troy.
Redford and screenwriter Matthew Michael Carnahan address numerous related issues with a rattled mixture of self-seriousness and superficiality. The way they’re linked dramatically doesn't fly, proving that truth, sincerity and formidable performers are no guarantee of victory in the cinematic arena. Their intentions were noble, but the execution was botched, much like the occupation of Iraq. Thankfully, when a movie implodes, no one gets hurt.
Cruise portrays a hawkish Republican senator who tries to convince Streep's journalist to help him sell a new strategy. Redford plays a political science professor at a West Coast college who laments the choice to enlist made by two idealistic students. The movie cuts between the Senator’s office, the campus where the teacher tries to inspire a promising but apathetic student (Andrew Garfield) and Afghanistan, where the two minority enlistees (Michael Pena and Derek Luke) are in combat with their Special Forces unit. While everyone else either refuses to engage or blows hot air, debating responsibility for the war and civic duty in general, these two put it all on the line.
Although the characters feel about as authentic as the set for the Senator’s capital office, the acting suffices. Cruise is propped up by his three-piece suit and A Few Good Men experience; Redford’s corduroy sport coat and liberal outlook fit snugly; and Streep uses every trick in her trouper’s handbag to play the most difficult role.
Alas, Carnahan’s cramped script lacks partisan teeth and strains to spread the blame, indicting the media even more than the political establishment. Redford’s direction treats the audience like dolts who need everything spelled out—but quickly so we can get back to whatever it is that really interests us. Lions for Lambs is a blustery tract about America’s military bluster and the failure of other institutions and the public at large to speak up.
The movie’s inadequacies exemplify the chief problem it diagnoses—our society’s reluctance to allot sufficient time for crucial issues to be defined and argued in depth. It’s a rush job. No filmmaker could do justice to this many topics in 88 minutes, and Redford should’ve taken more time.
Cast: Robert Redford, Meryl Streep, Tom Cruise, Michael Pena, Andrew Garfield, Peter Berg, Kevin Dunn and Derek Luke
Director: Robert Redford
Screenwriter: Matthew Michael Carnahan
Producers: Robert Redford, Matthew Michael Carnahan, Andrew Hauptman and Tracy Falco
Rating: R for some war violence and language
Running time: 88 min.
Release date: November 9, 2007