Michael Kmet

November 15, 2007

Robert Redford’s Lions for Lambs, the first film Redford has directed in nearly a decade, arrived in theaters last week amid a sea of movies concerned with Iraq and the war on terror. The film’s star power should set it apart from the others: Robert Redford, Meryl Streep, and Tom Cruise elevate every scene, and Redford’s direction provides the movie with much-needed momentum. But Matthew Carnahan’s screenplay is unsalvageable. His desire for the film to be politically relevant is overwhelmed by his efforts to appear unbiased. Those who see Lions for Lambs may be looking for inspiration and reassurance in the midst of our depressing political scene, but they’ll come away disappointed by its reliance on vague generalities and its utter lack of insight.

Redford’s film isn’t a cinematic meditation on post-traumatic stress disorder like In the Valley of Elah, or an anti-torture warning &gravea; la Rendition. Instead, Lions for Lambs takes a broader look at three places where the effects of U.S. foreign policy are being felt–the American university, the federal government, and the military. Clocking in at 88 minutes and dividing its attention among three narratives, the film dilutes its message to the point that it’s indiscernible. What little ground Lions for Lambs manages to cover resembles the oversimplified talking points the film itself condemns. “Do you want to win the war on terror–yes or no?” asks Senator Jasper Irving (Tom Cruise). “Why did we invade a country that didn’t attack us?” responds reporter Janine Roth (Meryl Streep). The rest of the film continues in this fashion, substituting easy, digestible slogans for thoughtful debate, and leaving unanswered all the questions it raises.

In the film’s first narrative, Roth is working on a “detailed timeline of the war on terror” in Washington, D.C. She sets up a meeting with Senator Irving to interview him for the timeline, but the ambitious young Republican has other plans. Roth offers her an exclusive story on his new strategy for the United States to win the war in Afghanistan.

For all the passionate debate between these two characters, the details of Irving’s new plan are never made clear beyond a spattering of military jargon. This doesn’t really matter to the plot, of course. Irving’s plan isn’t important in itself. It’s simply a catalyst for Roth to storm off and dramatically declare to her editor that she refuses to break the story as Irving tells it. The editor unceremoniously reminds Roth that she’s on thin ice with the network’s management, and she does some dramatic D.C. sightseeing while deciding if Irving’s flaky politicking is worth jeopardizing her career. These scenes are so disconnected from Irving and Roth’s spirited debate that by the end of the film it’s hard to care about either of their careers.

The second narrative shows Irving’s new plan being implemented in Afghanistan. When everything goes predictably and terribly wrong, soldier Ernesto Rodriguez (Michael Pe&ntilda;a) falls out of a helicopter onto a remote, snow-covered Afghan mountaintop. His friend and fellow soldier Arian Finch (Derek Luke) leaps out of the helicopter to rescue him.

The sequences in Afghanistan are the best in the film. There’s no preachy rhetoric, and the characters are very compelling; instead of just talking to each other about what they’re going to do, they do it. Through flashbacks, we learn that Rodriguez and Finch chose Army service over graduate school, hoping to build up experience to be applied in their future political careers. Their commitment establishes them as the film’s heroes, and though the script breaks down toward the end and puts Rodriguez and Finch in an off-putting Hollywood moment, the rest of the Afghanistan plot is so strong that this is forgivable.

In the third and most disappointing narrative, Stephen Malley (Robert Redford) is an aging college professor at a California university who meets with Todd Hayes (Andrew Garfield), a promising but apathetic political science student. Malley, exerting all of Redford’s real-life ardor, tries to convince Hayes to act on his potential rather than sit back and accept the status quo. While speaking to Hayes, Malley passionately describes the last two students who caught his interest: Rodriguez and Finch.

But these scenes come across as frivolous. The audience never sees what’s so special about Hayes–the most the film offers is that the young man once sparked a debate in class despite having not done the assigned reading. This might sound believable, but then Redford heavy handedly shows the event in an awkward flashback that drains the situation of all credibility. Redford’s lines inspire eye-rolls instead of passion. “Rome is burning, son,” says Malley. “Better to do something and fail than to do nothing.” When Hayes looks at his watch, the action unintentionally reflects the audience’s impatience with Malley’s worn out slogans masquerading as insight.

Despite its attempted call to action, much of the film simply doesn’t ring true. Roth criticizes Irving’s new plan as recycled neoconservatism, but beyond this critique she brings little to the discussion. Her dramatic display of journalistic integrity is followed by the obvious reality that as soon as the camera cuts away either she’ll write the story or someone else will. And for all his charged rhetoric, Malley can’t present his students with any course of action but full-fledged military service. He disapproves when Rodriguez and Finch announce their enlistment, but, years later, has little else to offer Hayes. When Hayes returns to his frat house and seems to have his own epiphany, the audience wonders if he will be the next young man to join the fight and die while the political status quo remains unchanged.

The movie’s tagline–“If you don’t stand for something, you might fall for anything”–combines grandmotherly advice with political imperative. Lions for Lambs doesn’t stand with enough conviction or definition to separate it from any other discussion of problematic U.S. foreign policy. The film succeeds at telling the audience that things are bad–but who didn’t know that already?

Michael Kmet is a junior at Ithaca College and an intern at the Center for American Progress.