The Movie Review: 'Lions for Lambs'

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. 

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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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