You know how it felt when you were in college and your dad would take you aside for a, "Let's have a serious chat about your future/what a slacker you are/why you need to start growing up and getting your life together" talk? Wasn't that fun? Or not. That's pretty much how it feels watching the lastest Iraq war flick, Robert Redford-helmed Lions for Lambs, written by Matthew Michael Carnahan, who also penned The Kingdom, which came out in September (and barely made back its $70 million budget).
Lions for Lambs gets its title from a story related by Redford's character, college professor Stephen Malley, about a German general in WW2 who had a lot of respect for the British footsoldiers on the front lines, even though he thought those brave men were being led by a pack of idiots. The general, Malley tells us, said of the soldiers "Never have I seen such lions led by such lambs." The film plays on that idea with our current (seemingly endless) war and the soldiers putting their lives on the line for decisions being made by people who don't seem to know what the hell they're doing. The anecdote could also apply to the film itself, which has heaps of earnest, heartfelt performances and a relevant message unfortunately wrapped up in an oddly discordant, moderately self-righteous package which is probably going to go right over the heads of most of the people at whom it's targeted.
The film shows us three interlinked stories (is it just me, or are other people getting tired of the "interlinked stories" plot structure?): a powerful senator (Tom Cruise, in his first major dramatic role in six years) meets with a seasoned political reporter (Meryl Streep) to unveil an exclusive story about a bold new initiative in the war on terror; a seasoned political science professor (Redford) meets with a recalcitrant student (Andrew Garfield); and two best friends (Michael Peña and Derek Luke) -- formerly college students from guess-which-professor's poli sci class -- are caught in the web of the senator's initiative.
Here's the description of the film on IMDb: "Injuries sustained by two Army ranger behind enemy lines in Afghanistan set off a sequence of events involving a congressman (Cruise), a journalist (Streep) and a professor (Redford)." Now that sounds potentially good, right? Maybe the professor is one of those rogue ex-hippy, former political activists with pot-hazed Woodstock memories, who's spending these days caring more about bulking up his 401K than marching against this or that cause. He still smokes weed on the side, but only because it helps his arthritis -- at least that's what he tells himself. While on hiatus from teaching to write a book on Muslim terrorists (his speciality is the Middle East, of course) the professor unearths a nefarious plot involving a ruthless, charismatic senator who's trying to jockey himself into position to run for president by using the ever-reliable method of fear-mongering to spearhead a daring initiative that could (da-da-dummm) change the outcome of the war.
Unfortunately for the soldiers being moved around like chess pieces, the senator's ploy involves a sacrifice play that could cost them their lives. The Professor calls up his ex-wife (and former Woodstock playmate), the Serious Political Journalist, and when she starts to investigage the story, Bad Things start happening, and the Prof had to rescue his estranged wife from the Senator's plan to silence her once and for all. Sure, we've seen that one before too, but at least that movie could have lots of nifty action sequences, and if you cast Bruce Willis as the prof you could even get a few wryly delivered lines tossed in with a smirky grin to liven things up a bit. Lions for Lambs could have been a mildly interesting war-political thriller, with some wicked action sequences to satisfy the popcorn crowd, but instead Carnahan gives us an overly talky stage play full of good intentions that feels like a lecture on Why We Should Care About the War (and its closely related topic, Why We Should Not Elect Tom Cruise to Public Office, Ever)
Let's be honest ... does anyone really want to see another war movie right now? I know, I know, the subject matter is relevant, we get that. Yes, this war sucks. Yes, there are parallels to Vietnam -- which coincidentally, also sucked. Yes, our politicians lied to us (shocking but true) and they lie to cover their lies. We're mired in this war with no easy way out, our soldiers are dying -- for what we're not sure, and the whole situation stinks to high heaven. But, do we want (or need) to see 89,000 movies about it? If Toronto was any indication, audiences just aren't that into seeing movies about the Middle East, or Muslim terrorists, or lying politicians, or dying soldiers. If we want that, we'll watch The Daily Show and at least get some humor tossed in to lighten up the depressing dose of reality a bit. Call it war-and-stupidity overload, but what audiences want at the movies right now is to escape from the reality of this nightmarish conundrum -- not be lectured to earnestly by Robert Redford in a denim shirt about whether they're going to get off their collective asses and do something about it.
And Redford is earnest in this film, make no mistake, which is partly what makes it difficult to not like it. He's exactly what you wish your own poli sci profs had been like -- intelligent, ruggedly handsome, informed, and compassionate. Streep is appropriately angst-filled as a journalist coming to terms with the role she and her mainstream media ilk have played in selling this war. Cruise, with his patented toothy grin and all-American good looks, is the consummate politician when he deadpans to the camera, "I am NOT running for President." (nudge nudge, wink wink)
As Redford's student, the once-promising Todd Hayes, who's given up caring about politics in favor of a frat boy life of parties, girls and a future six-figure income, Garfield (Boy A) turns in a solid enough performance for what he has to work with, but why we should actually care about this smug little frat-boy slacker with the artfyully mussed hair and Hawaiian shirt and whether he decides to tune back in, I still don't really know. Peña and Luke, as the best-pal soldiers caught in the crossfire, are somewhat more sympathetic, especially when you keep in mind the real young men and women these characters represent who are out there risking their lives in this war (but maybe Pena's agent can score him a role where he actually gets to move and emote in the same scenes next time -- between this film and World Trade Center, he's pretty much explored the "injured-guy-who-can't-move" emotional range).
I saw the film at a fairly packed screening on a college campus; I sat in the back, all the better to observe the reactions of the coeds and faculty who'd crammed in to see the film. I'm not sure how they're going to market Lions for Lambs -- it's too cerebral and not action-packed or intense enough to be broadly appealing -- but I will say that the decision to promo-screen it on college campuses is a smart one. If there's a target market that might benefit from seeing a film like Lions for Lambs, it's college students on the slacker track who might latch onto Redford's moralizing enough to actually affect a change -- or maybe get them to put down the beer bong long enough to vote next fall.