Lions For Lambs (2007)

It would be easy to approach Lions for Lambs as a simple partisan tirade and accept it on its own terms. But though it asks some important questions, the film ignores so much narrative common sense that its message drowns in a pool of presuppositions and insulting non-sequiturs.

The film follows three stories. Time magazine journalist Janine Roth (Meryl Streep) has been invited by Sen. Jasper Irving (Tom Cruise) for an exclusive look at a new plan to win the War on Terror. It’s a plan that involves capturing the high ground in Afghanistan — one that happens to includes soldiers Arian Finch and Ernest Rodriguez (Derek Luke and Michael Pena), former students of Professor Stephen Malley (Robert Redford). Malley, the third anchor to this story, has chosen today to confront the apathy of a slacker in his class whom, Malley believes, has a lot of untapped potential.

The structure lends itself more to a stage play than a film, relying almost entirely on dialog.

Redford, assuming directorial responsibilities, handles the script by Matthew Michael Carnahan (The Kingdom) well enough, and armed with two other thespian giants, portions of the film rise to colorful life on the strength of those performances alone. Absent any discernable plot, however, the story amounts to little more than an episodic ideologue.

Unfortunately, the film never quite transcends its agenda, and the resulting narrative begs credulity in places. For instance, Sen. Irving makes a habit of blaming poor intelligence for various difficulties involved with fighting the War on Terror, yet he assures Roth that this new operation in Afghanistan is based on solid information. The operatives joining Finch and Rodriguez in their flight over the desert corroborate the claim — satellite imagery from the day before confirms their landing sight as abandoned.

Naturally, the helicopter takes surprise enemy fire. In the course of the mayhem, Rodriguez falls from the craft. Finch, desperate to save his friend, leaps from the helicopter as well. As they lay in the snow, injured and bleeding, with enemy troops advancing on their position, a satellite has conveniently appeared overhead to keep the soldiers mounting a rescue appraised of the situation. The audience is left to decide whether its appearance is a result of poor military planning, or just lazy scriptwriting.

As the film’s most interesting characters, Finch and Rodriguez receive perhaps the most disrespectful treatment. They appear as thoughtful young adults, anxious to engage the world around them. Their choice to join the military, an intent decision made to put legs under their idealism, disturbs Malley, and he gently tries to coax them toward another direction. Admirably, they hold to their convictions.  We can change things, they say.

“If,” Malley replies. “If.” The implication being, of course, if they return home alive, as if their service to their country holds little to no meaning at all. Unfortunately, that’s just the signal the film appears to send.

Redford, Streep, and Cruise all turn in steady performances, in spite of their rather stock characterizations. Streep and Cruise spar over the issues with reflexive talking points, neither taking the discussion to a level deeper than anything found on Dateline NBC. Only Malley’s conversation with the slacker Todd Hayes (Andrew Garfield) leads to any real conversational development.

We get to see a glimpse of what Malley sees in Hayes through a flashback that reveals his smarts. We leave him at the end as he wrestles with Malley’s prompts, juxtaposed with a newsreel that has become all too familiar in a media culture more obsessed with braying pop stars than the too-often nameless lions making real sacrifices.

Perhaps the ending might have worked better had those sacrifices received better treatment.

(edited by Sam Gaines)

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