Title: Lions for Lambs
Genre: Drama, Thriller, War
Director: Robert Redford
Screenwriters: Matthew Michael Carnahan
Starring: Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep, Robert Redford
Mannn, Redford, if you wanted to make a feature-length cinematic editorial, why didn’t you just go balls-out and have done with it? The conventional wisdom will be that Lions for Lambs is stagey and talky — a blatantly preachy liberal polemic. And so it is. But I want to suggest that the film would have been stronger, or at least more interesting, had Redford had the guts to go all the way. You want to lecture me? Then fucking lecture me. Don’t shoehorn in a pair of soldiers trapped behind enemy lines for “excitement.” It’s disingenuous, not to mention gutless. If something’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right.
In the best liberal tradition, the movie is blisteringly angry and disarmingly optimistic at once. The battle between Tom Cruise’s terrifying neo-conservative senator and Meryl Streep’s deferential but deeply skeptical veteran reporter contains most of the cynicism. Matthew Michael Carnahan’s screenplay handily captures both the rhetorical force and fundamental dishonesty of the neo-con arguments, and posits that members of the mainstream media (or the “MSM,” as the internet acronym goes) are well-intentioned but basically helpless, carried along by wave after wave of destructive conventional wisdom — e.g. that parroting partisan talking points constitutes “balance” in reporting. Cruise and Streep are fantastic; the former, in particular, scared the crap out of me.
You’ll find the optimism in a parallel confrontation between Stephen Malley (Redford) and Todd Hayes (Andrew Garfield), a student Malley calls into his office one morning. Malley sees in “promise” in Todd — a genius IQ as well as more intangible forms of “potential” — but also an increasing complacency, as evidenced by his increasingly frequent absences from class and plummeting engagement. He wants to spur the kid’s idealism, make him think about what he’s doing with his life, force him to consider what’s at stake. Todd wants to know why he shouldn’t go after the Good Life, a white picket fence and a nice income; he’s smart enough to get it easily, and why shouldn’t he? That seemed to me to be a good point. They talk and we listen.
If that sounds didactic, you don’t know the half of it. But it’s enjoyable, too, not least for seeing four terrific actors play four intelligent characters having a vigorous discussion about the issues of the day. And hey, we could use a seriously pissed-off movie about the disgrace that is American government at the moment; I can even see an argument for such a movie being as direct and confrontational as possible. I could have gotten on board with what Redford was trying to do here. I might have gone against the grain and insisted that we needed this movie.
But, oh yes — there’s a third storyline fighting for screentime in the 88-minute film, and here Redford makes a huge mistake. This one involves a pair of Malley’s former students (Michael Peņa and Derek Luke) who, in a fit of enthusiasm, dropped out of school, joined the army and are now Rangers. While the Senator, the reporter, the teacher and the student sit in offices and debate, these two are about to parachute into enemy territory to capture a strategic position — part of the new military offensive the Senator is enthusiastically pitching. An accident leaves them injured in a snowy Afghani wasteland, basically defenseless and surrounded by armed hostiles.
Everything about this subplot rubbed me the wrong way, and I’m not sure what wound up being the dealbreaker. Maybe it’s that Peņa and Luke are manifestly too old to play undergrads, and look absolutely ridiculous in flashbacks. Maybe it’s that the connections to the other stories are so nifty and contrived that they seem unserious. Maybe it’s that though the behind-enemy-lines stuff is supposed to be “action” that propels the film it’s actually kind of boring and I wanted to fast-forward through it. At any rate, the addition renders the film overstuffed, disjointed, and several orders of magnitude more pretentious than it otherwise would have been. It’s a mess and a shame.
I leave for another day the troubling implications of the fact that it’s apparently fallen to Robert Redford to say some of the things that Lions for Lambs expresses in its eloquent rage. I’m grateful to him for it. But his movie doesn’t quite get there. Cutting out the objectionable segments would have basically resulted in a straight-up lecture, and I don’t know how good a movie that would have made. But it would have been better than the mish-mash actually before us. I wanted to like it, and I couldn’t do it.