There’s a scene in Lions for Lambs in which reporter Janine Roth (Streep), during one of several down times in her interview with Senator Jasper Irving (Cruise), takes a stroll around the Senator’s office. The camera pans across a photo of Irving with President Bush, who is giving the trademark presidential thumbs-up. It was at this time that a good portion of the crowd began chuckling in a mocking fashion. In my estimation this speaks infinitely louder than anything contained in the film. We hear poll stats on a daily basis, but in that live moment it became apparent that over half of the audience has no respect for the current leader of the free world.
Lions for Lambs tells interlocking stories, all based around the current engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan. As the film opens, established reporter Janine Roth is arriving for her “exclusive” one-hour interview with Senator Jasper Irving. Years earlier, Roth had proclaimed Irving as “the future of the Republican party.” Irving proceeds to tell Roth of a new strategy that will “win the war on terror” and restore America’s faith in their government. Concurrently, across the country Professor Stephen Malley (Redford) is meeting with one of his students, Todd Hayes (Garfield). Malley sees infinite potential in Hayes, but feels his ignorance is holding him back. Malley proceeds to tell the story of two of his other students, Ernest Rodriguez (Peña) and Arian Finch (Derek Luke), both of whom are motivated and ultimately felt their purpose is to join the military and help the cause. Rodriguez and Finch’s story is simultaneously told, as they find themselves stranded on the snowy mountains of Afghanistan after their helicopter drop-off goes awry.
What is working against Lions for Lambs from the outset is that it can’t win from a political standpoint. Robert Redford, directing here, is an outspoken liberal – but he did not write the film. The leftist views are exploited in the trailer, likely in an effort to garner viewers based on the current administration’s approval ratings. Truth be told, numerous sides are explored in screenwriter Matthew Michael Carnahan’s script. The film even goes so far, and bravely so in a refreshing manner, as to point the finger directly at the media for treating the start of the war like a sporting event (remember the little countdown timers tracking when the bombs would descend on Baghdad?) The resounding message of “drop what you’re doing and get involved!” is hardly original, but there are certainly points to be taken from all fronts.
Tom Cruise turns in the most notable performance, playing Irving as cunning, calculated, and a charming politician. He shrugs off history when Roth brings up Creighton Abrams’ involvement in Vietnam and only focuses on the here and now. Irving acknowledges the administration’s mistakes, but feels he has the solution. Meryl Streep and Robert Redford are largely subdued, as if they’ve taken roles (or been appointed, in Redford’s case) below their skill level. Peña and Luke are solid in their supporting roles.
Lions for Lambs is another entry into the rapidly increasing canon of contemporary politically-driven films that asks a lot of questions but doesn’t offer much in the way of satisfying answers. Irving’s “whatever it takes” attitude is certainly reflective of the current administration’s way of handling the situation, but what about the long term? Is it possible that we could still be in Iraq, Afghanistan, and (possibly) Iran in 2017? Answers we may not have, but constructive debate we do. It’s time to seize that potential and think about the big picture.
Length: 88 Minutes
Rating: R for some war violence and language.
Theatrical Release: November 9, 2007
Directed by: Robert Redford
Written by: Matthew Michael Carnahan
Cast: Robert Redford, Meryl Streep, Tom Cruise, Michael Peña, Andrew Garfield, Peter Berg