Lions for Lambs (United States, 2007)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Lions for Lambs is one of those movies in which the principals talk a lot but don't say much. The film is built not upon characters and plot but upon ideas. That would be fine if the ideas were revolutionary or interesting, but they're fairly commonplace. At its heart, this is an anti-war movie but, unlike other films existing in this growing genre, it doesn't pretend that the current situation is a series of black-and-white discrete instances. It acknowledges the grays. The problem is, aside from some okay performances by high-profile talent, there's nothing worth watching going on here. It's surprising that a director of Robert Redford's undeniable skill has made such a bland and somnambulant motion picture.

The movie follows three plot lines that have hooks into one another. In the first, injured soldiers Ernest Rodriguez (Michael Pena) and Arian Finch (Derek Luke) are caught in a firefight in the mountains of Afghanistan. Cut off from their unit, they are trapped in the icy wasteland with snow falling and the enemy closing in. Meanwhile, in Washington D.C., the architect of the "new strategy" that has placed Rodriguez and Finch in their dire situation, Senator Jasper Irving (Tom Cruise), is engaged in a one-on-one sitdown with journalist Janine Roth (Meryl Streep). His goal is to use her to sell the plan and she's feeling cheaper than a two-bit whore. Finally, at a California university, Professor Stephen Malley (Redford), who counted Rodriguez and Finch among his most gifted students last year, is arguing life and responsibility with his latest "fine young mind": the cynical and unmotivated Todd Hayes (Andrew Garfield). So Cruise and Streep talk, Redford and Garfield argue, and Pena and Luke lie in the freezing snow trying not to get shot by the Taliban.

A movie like Lions for Lambs needs to do at least one of two things: get us to care about the characters or give us enough intellectually stimulating material that our identification with them is not necessary. It does neither. One wonders whether Redford and screenwriter Matthew Michael Carnahan (who also penned The Kingdom) thought they were making some telling points. But their "revelations," such as the mass media's collusion with the political establishment in selling the invasion of Iraq, are neither groundbreaking nor compelling.

The acting is fine, although there are no performances here that will shout out for Oscar nominations. Tom Cruise exudes charisma as a preacher of Republican pro-war slogans. The key here is that the character really believes what he's selling and that makes him a passionate spokesperson. Streep reaches into her bag of characters and pulls out a mousey one who would fit in nicely with all those middle-aged women who are on a first-name basis with the President at his press conferences. Robert Redford, the third member of the high profile trio, appears to be playing someone who's not all that different from the actor/director - a low-key liberal professor. I'm not convinced there's a lot of acting needed for this part.

The longer the movie runs (fortunately, it's shorter than the average Redford film or no one would be awake at the end), the more it seems that Lions for Lambs is trying to baffle us with b.s. One has to applaud the actors' ability to memorize lines, because there are a lot of them. The Afghanistan war sequences, which are intended to inject life into the otherwise wordy proceedings, are presented in such a lackluster manner that they seem more like filler than a crucial leg of the plot's tripod. Redford has never shown himself to be adept at action sequences, and this deficiency is evident here.

Maybe the problem with Lions for Lambs is that it's behind the curve. Perhaps three years ago, it might have seemed fresh and interesting, but information has come out and opposition to the war has grown. Now, the movie seems like it's re-hashing familiar territory rather than plowing new ground. Redford is known to be a slow, deliberate worker (his last movie as a director was seven years ago). In this instance, that trait may have hurt him. In many ways, Lions for Lambs may have more going for it than any of this era's crop of anti-war films but it ultimately fares no better than the least of them. Its pitfalls may be different but the result is the same: it's not entertaining, educational, or effective.

Lions for Lambs (United States, 2007)

Run Time: 1:30
U.S. Release Date: 2007-11-09
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Violence)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1