The Movie Review: 'Lions for Lambs'

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A promising but junior GOP Senator (not the president) is announcing the nation's bold new military strategy in the war on terrorism. He does so in an exclusive interview with a reporter (not in a televised address or press conference). And the reporter to whom he grants the interview is ideologically hostile to him (not a useful propagandist). We're a few scant minutes into Lions for Lambs and already it's offered up more inanity than any politically "serious" movie should ever contemplate. 

It is, of course, only just getting started. The interview itself, between Senator Jasper Irving (Tom Cruise) and TV reporter Janine Roth (Meryl Streep) isn't really an interview at all, but rather a debate between the former's pious warmongering and the latter's jaded skepticism. The problem is that the arguments made by both sides are consistently idiotic. Given that the target audience of the film is educated Americans, anyone likely to see it is also likely to see through it. I don't believe I was the only one in the theater to shudder slightly when Irving tells Roth that he can talk to her until eleven o'clock and she replies enthusiastically "The whole hour?" (Don't worry: In reality, the Irving-Roth jawfest takes up a mere thirty minutes or so of screen time.) 

The senator tells Roth that the U.S. government, which he seems somehow to be running, is responding to an incursion of Sunni militants from Iraq into Afghanistan via Iran (and no, the film doesn't explain why militants leaving Iraq is a bad thing) by putting a number of small combat units into Afghanistan to root them out. Irving's case for the new mission consists mostly of stereotypical pro-war blather about "getting it right" and "fighting to win." What's odd is that Roth's anti-war case, which the film is intended to promote, is even less persuasive, consisting of simple-minded sloganeering--"So, it's basically kill people to help people"--and a point-scoring obsession with recounting past mistakes: "Why did it take us three years to armor up our Humvees?" "Didn't we also arm Saddam in the 1980s?" "It really reminds me of Abrams in '68."  

As a break from the astonishing cinematic inertia of Cruise and Streep yakking, Lions for Lambs intercuts their debate with ... another scene of people arguing back and forth across a desk. Professor Stephen Malley (Robert Redford, who also directed) has summoned a student, Todd Hayes (Andrew Garfield), into his office. Todd, you see, is an immensely gifted kid, but Malley thinks that he's not applying himself enough in school, that he needs to be more engaged with the world. The resulting lecture seems designed primarily to make us yearn to switch back to the Cruise-Streep Model Congress, and it very nearly succeeds. Suffice it to say that the former bears as close a resemblance to real-life academia as the latter does to real-life journalism. 

There's another storyline as well in which--mirabile dictu!--the participants actually get out of their chairs, though the filmmakers demonstrate their political integrity by giving it the least screen time of the three. Two former students of Malley's, Ernest (Michael Pena) and Arian (Derek Luke), took his mandate to engage with the world at face value and, to his distress, enlisted in the Army. The two are (of course) part of the new Afghanistan offensive, which (of course) goes badly for them, leaving the pair stranded alone in the snowy Afghan mountains, waiting for the arrival of Army rescuers or bloodthirsty militants, whichever come first. 

Unfortunately, Redford and screenwriter Matthew Michael Carnahan don't quite know what to think of poor Ernest and Arian. On the one hand, they radically overvalue the young soldiers, implicitly arguing that if these two G.I.s die it will mean the entire new strategy in Afghanistan is a failure. (The filmmakers don't offer any other evidence that this is, in fact, the case.) On the other hand, there's something more than a tad condescending about the symbolic victimhood of these two men, one Hispanic and one black, and neither considered quite important enough to be played by a star remotely comparable to Streep or Redford or Cruise. They're not exactly the Likeable Minority Cop Partner With A Beautiful Family Who's Set To Retire In A Week, but they're not far off.

But Lions for Lambs is not merely a silly, shallow movie about the war: Its ambitions are broader and more scattered. Not content to stay focused on its central issue, it dabbles and babbles hither and yon, tossing off sophomore term-paper opinions on such topics as Americorps, consumerism, student loans, and corporate ownership of the media.

Late in the movie, Roth, fresh from her interview, has an anguished discussion with her editor. Should they run the story the senator has given them? Did their early, credulous reporting in the run-up to the Iraq war make them just as culpable as its planners? Should they have quit their jobs when their network was bought by a soap company in the 1990s? Have they (gasp) sold out?

It's an odd, awkward scene, and I confess that it wasn't until this point that it struck me that, on a certain level, Lions to Lambs isn't really about the war on terrorism at all; it's about the boomers. The movie's backward focus, its lectures on peripheral issues, even the inclusion of the otherwise unnecessary professor-student storyline, are all hints that this may be less a political document than a cultural one.

When Roth complains to her editor that the government hawks are engaged in "Vietnam-era thinking," it rings truer as a self-critique; she is, after all, the one who keeps bringing up Vietnam and the 1960s. Indeed, if you tug on the emotional threads of the film, they all lead straight back to that crucible of generational consciousness: the fiftysomething journalists worry that they've been co-opted by the system that they started out fighting against; the liberal professor is disappointed that his students lack the passion and fervor of his own youth. It's on this last point that Redford is at his most patronizing. When, repeatedly, the film criticizes today's kids for being more interested in making money than in making a difference, one is tempted to reply: Yes, Mr. Redford, what a lucky thing it is for all of us that when you were young you eschewed fame and fortune.

The screening of the film I attended also hosted a sizable contingent of students from American University, who came with their professor. It seemed apt. Lions for Lambs is a movie no one should bother seeing unless they're getting credit for it.

This post originally appeared at TNR.com.

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Christopher Orr is a senior editor and the principal film critic at The Atlantic. He has written on movies for The New Republic, LA Weekly, Salon, and The New York Sun, and has worked as an editor for numerous publications.

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