Lions for Lambs
Redford, Streep and Cruise. Lions for Lambs has attracted an arresting box office combination. Especially in a drama that engages with arguably the most contentious and certainly one of the most important political issues facing the world today: US intervention in the Middle East.
The trouble for the marketing department is that most people are turned off by politics; they may not like what is done in their name, but they don't do much about it - in fact that's the whole rationale for the film. Opinion polls in the US show that 72 percent of voters want all troops out of Iraq within two years, but none of the Presidential hopefuls feels compelled to follow suit. (The film's tagline is to the point: "If you don't stand for something, you might fall for anything.") Meanwhile the combined age of the three stars is 174…
As it happens, I'd suggest the worst way to approach Lions for Lambs is in the expectation of a blockbuster. Screenwriter (and political science graduate) Matthew Michael Carnahan went that route with The Kingdom, with mixed results. He initially wrote Lions for Lambs as a play, and it shows. For most of its 88 minute running time, it consists of nothing but talk.
There are three strands, and essentially three locations: in a California university, poli-sci lecturer Redford is having a stern talk with a promising but apparently unmotivated student (Brit newcomer Andrew Garfield). Meanwhile in Washington DC veteran reporter Streep is granted a rare hour with up-and-coming Republican senator Cruise, who is giving her the scoop on his new military initiative in Afghanistan. As they speak, two of Redford's former students, Ernie and Arian (Michael Pena and Derek Luke) are pinned down, wounded and alone, on a snowy mountain peak, with Taliban forces approaching.
The Afghan action doesn't really belong in what is essentially a film of words, issues and debate; at any rate, Redford (whose direction is never more than functional throughout) makes minimal efforts to make anything of the thinly written sequence.
The professor - student dialogue is the most didactic element in what is a very didactic piece of work. Garfield's student, Todd, has been slacking off from Professor Malley's lectures, and Malley wants to impress on the kid that it's not about the grades, it's about making a commitment - like Ernie and Arian. It's a one-sided, top-down discussion, and Carnahan is more preoccupied with generalizations about generations than he is with either character as an individual. Though Garfield does well with the role, you would need a far more anarchic comic actor - say, Seann William Scott - to make the case for cynicism and slacking off as a legitimate response to Redford's weathered sanctimoniousness.
Fortunately the reporter's face-time with the senator proves more evenly balanced. While she wants to analyze the past, he's calculating on the future. Their mismatched agendas allow Carnahan to air a good many salient issues about US foreign policy from two distinct points of view, and he doesn't lose sight of the subtle power discrepancy going on either. Cruise is on his game here, and makes a more credible Republican Presidential hopeful than most of those currently vying for the job. (When the journalist examines the photos on his walls, she finds pictures of Cruise arm in arm with Condoleeza Rice, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Bush II.)
Carnahan's writing moves up a notch too. I can't imagine an up-and-coming politician making such frank admission of his party's manifest failures ("Worst intel in history… Leaders who've never been bloodied in a fight… Bad PR"), but the senator is a slick salesman and his pitch for the refocusing war on terror is passionate, quite plausibly sincere. So much so that Streep's journalist intuits this man would go nuclear if he could, a possibility we better hope is pure Hollywood.
The vote is rigged of course. There's never any question the film has anything but a liberal agenda, and if the purpose of drama is to challenge preconceptions then this one is dead on arrival. On the other hand, such political moralizing is so completely out of fashion there is something almost refreshing about the spectacle - or rather, the lack of it.
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