Lions for Lambs (2007)


(director: Robert Redford; screenwriter: Matthew Michael Carnahan; cinematographer: Philippe Rousselot; editor: Joe Hutshing; music: Mark Isham; cast: Robert Redford (Prof. Stephen Malley), Meryl Streep (Janine Roth), Tom Cruise (Senator Jasper Irving), Michael Peña (Ernest Rodriguez), Andrew Garfield (Todd Hayes), Peter Berg (Lieutenant Colonel Falco), Kevin Dunn (ANX Editor), Derek Luke (Arian Finch); Runtime: 93; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Robert Redford/Matthew Michael Carnahan/Andrew Hauptman/Tracy Falco; United Artists; 2007)
“Has worth because its subject matter has worth.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The title is derived from a comment made by a German officer in WW I about admiring the British grunts for being the brave ones while their commanding officers are the cowardly ones who sacrifice the young lions in the war without really caring what happens to the ones who fight it. He said: ‘Never have I seen such lions led by such lambs.’

It’s the first directing effort for Robert Redford (“Quiz Show”/”The Horse Whisperer”/”The Legend of Bagger Vance”) in seven years. Redford also stars in the pic, which is a clunky, didactic and rhetorical exercise that puts all its chips on being morally right about its relentless sermon against the war and about the need for civic responsibility (which at this stage of the extended war it sure seems like the filmmaker was morally right in his position to all but those with their heads buried in the sand, the neo-cons who swallowed the Kool-Aid and the timid lawmakers who are still too afraid to cut off funding for the disastrous war).

The stagy but well-intentioned liberal hand-wringing exercise over the failed Iraq war laces out at the media for not doing its job to be more probing, the government leaders for lying about the war, politicians for only worrying about their own hides, liberals and intellectuals for not being more engaged in the process, students for their indifference and the apathy of the public that still allows the war to continue even though most are now opposed to it. Yes. It says what already has been said and offers nothing that wasn’t already said before, but it has worth because its subject matter has worth. For those who demand from Hollywood only films that are entertaining, then this film is probably not for them.

Matthew Michael Carnahan’s (also wrote the screenplay for The Kingdom) earnest screenplay does not mince any words about where he stands on the war, which is actually a breath of fresh air coming from a Hollywood production. Carnahan’s screenplay would have undoubtedly been better served as a play, which it was originally meant to be. But whatever are the film’s many flaws, such as its script not being cinema friendly, the paper thin characters the actors portray all being used as props to make talking points while the thesps are given little chance to act, and its unbearable self-righteousness; but with that being said, the pic still engages us and cares about things it should care about. Though tough to enjoy because it’s so preachy and verbose and the arguments are so obvious and one-sided, there’s still a quaint charm about how it still believes it can reach an America that has turned crassly materialistic, cynical and is way too indifferent for its own good. There was something about this pic that kept me from not sneering at it, even though it was so tightly wrapped that it was at times suffocating to watch such a flat and unconvincing drama. But I ended up liking it despite all its faults because I felt its sincerity and its passionate responses and was impressed that it did not not give a damn if it was fashionable or not in its liberal approach to tackling this major issue (which in my way of looking at things, is a good enough reason to like a pic I didn’t love).

The main body of the film is composed of three extended scenes that intermesh with each other throughout. In one scenario, disillusioned and previously compromised long-time television cable news reporter Janine Roth (Meryl Streep), a Judith Miller type, seduced by those in power and seduced to get ahead even if it means not always telling the truth, is called into the office of Senator Jasper Irving (Tom Cruise), an ambitious young hawkish Republican on the rise in the party with an eye on the White House, for a rare one-hour interview. The slick politico is both using her to promote his new offensive action strategy for stopping the insurgency in Afghanistan and at the same tossing her a bone in the way of an exclusive story so she makes points with her corporate bosses at the cable network; the second story has an apathetic, obnoxious, feckless and privileged white frat boy student Todd Hayes (Andrew Garfield) at an unnamed California college confer with his well-meaning anti-war poli-sci professor and faculty adviser Professor Malley (Robert Redford) about his skipping classes and though being gifted not being engaged in anything worthwhile; the third scenario has two underprivileged minority students at the same college, the Latino named Ernest Rodriguez (Michael Peña) and Arian Finch (Derek Luke), the African-American, who are gifted students of Malley’s but because they cared enough about their country volunteered to join a Special Forces unit even though their country didn’t care enough to help in their ghetto neighborhood. They are now together as part of the troops used in Senator Irving’s new war policy, who are ready to heroically give their life in an Afghan mountain top ice field fighting the Taliban while all the other white characters in their former college community either lead lives of quiet desperation or leisure or plan big career moves or just shoot the breeze debating the pros and cons of their positions on the war. These two, who take on a saintly glow (which I found noxious), are not applauded for believing in the war but are applauded for being the ‘sacrificial lambs’ who are respected by their idealistic professor for wanting to do something they believe is good even if their caring professor, a former ’60s activist and draftee, believes the war is unjust (you know it as the old chestnut about ‘we support the troops even if we don’t support the war’).

It might not be a pretty picture to look at and it might be preaching to the choir and it might be as one critic on Rotten Tomatoes said “Politics for Dummies,” but there are at least two things it’s not: it’s not wrong on its stance on the war and not wrong in being engaged in the most important issue facing Americans today. If it’s not a work of art and if it won’t reach those it most has to reach and if it’s done in such an overtly heavy-handed fashion that it leaves you with nothing to ponder as you leave the theater, it at least is not afraid to tell you its position without any trickery and is not ashamed to give it the old-school liberal try to get this country off the dime and not be so complacent. There have been a number of recent films on the Iraq war (such as “Rendition,” “The Kingdom” and “In the Valley of Elah”), finally after years of neglect, and all from different angles, with most being less stilted but even if most were arguably better films still none of them reached a wide audience and even after most were well-received by critics they just quickly faded away without making a dent in stopping the war. But who can say for sure that such films don’t matter more than what they seem to matter at present and who can condemn Redford for putting up his dukes to fight for a worthwhile cause! Once I got into the swing of things and got used to its talking-points lecture, I found it strangely satisfying in a quaint way and felt good that it must have some impact being how it shook up so many of my colleagues who a week before praised such an empty and needlessly violent picture as American Gangster that was pretending to tell a great American story yet could find no love for this picture which at least can’t be accused of being empty (it’s all about ideas) or unduly violent and is indeed telling a great American story.