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.