A film review by Craig J. Koban

LIONS FOR LAMBS jjj

2007, R, 92 mins.

Prof. Malley: Robert Redford / Janine Roth: Meryl Streep / Sen. Jasper Irving: Tom Cruise / Ernest Rodriguez: Michael Pena / Arian Finch: Derek Luke / Todd Hayes: Andrew Garfield / Lt. Col. Falco: Peter Berg / Howard: Kevin Dunn

Directed by Robert Redford /  Written by Matthew Michael Carnahan

The most sincere compliment that I will give Robert Redfordís LIONS FOR LAMBS is that it manages to have ideas and promotes our own thinking about them. 

Thankfully, itís one of those rare breeds of post 9/11 dramas that does not force feed all of its one sided political pontificating down our collective throats.  Certainly, there is an agenda behind the film, but it never makes a concentrated effort to make up our minds for us.

I think it is that very element that has plagued other would-be thought-provoking and inspired films that try to comment on the current socio-political landscape.  Films like the very recent RENDITION come to mind, which sheepishly went out of its way to take a hugely polarizing issue (that of the torture and detainment of possible terrorist suspects) and looked at it from the most narrow minded of perspectives.  It took a largely grey issue and offered up a meager and hopelessly naive black and white solution.

Redford is too much the veteran to allow that to happen in LIONS FOR LAMBS.  He is wise enough to understand that the many questions that 9/11, the war on terror, and US involvement in Iraq have no easily defined answers.  Part of what I liked about the film is that it tackles a considerable amount of dicey political conundrums and often does not have the answers.  Watching the film is kind of akin to sitting at a coffee shop with friends and endlessly discussing current events and issues, all while never really reaching a mutual consensus.

Some may feel that this could make for a frustrating film going experience.  Yet, LIONS FOR LAMBS does not set out to preach a one-sided agenda to viewers.  By raising issues in the film, Redford allows for our own intrinsic involvement and personal questioning of the issues.  For example, would the best solution to the Iraq debacle be to abruptly leave the country? Some would argue "yes", but would abandoning a problem solve the problem?  Also, wouldnít diplomacy be a more civilized choice in dealing with countries that harbor terrorists?  Again, some would argue "yes", but when one considers that terrorists are the kind of breed that attack without warning by flying planes into skyscrapers, killing thousands indiscriminately, then diplomacy seems like the least favorable solution when compared to military action.

These questions - and several more - are wide open for discussion in LIONS FOR LAMBS, and Redford and screenwriter Matthew Michael Carnahan (who also wrote this year's THE KINGDOM) present them simply and modestly in the form of three seemingly divergent, but interrelated, stories.  Two of them - the filmís best sections - involve two people sitting at a desk opposite of one another and the third story thread - and the least engaging - shows two friends fighting for their lives in Afghanistan against Taliban soldiers.  The latter mentioned segment of the film mostly involves a lot of perfunctory action and war spectacle (and, to be fair to Redford, he has never been a commanding filmmaker when it comes to action), but the other two segments, which are all dialogue and as modestly staged as a two man stage play, really show off Redfordís strengths with actors, and the respective performances here are what allows for LIONS FOR LAMBS to shine.

The first of the three storylines begins in Washington where a veteran journalist, Janine Roth (Meryl Streep, in a great underplayed performance) sits down for an exclusive one on one interview with Jasper Irving (the perfectly cast Tom Cruise, exuding cocky and smarmy charm), a Republican Senator with not-so-subtle aspirations of achieving the highest political office in the land.  Irving is a cunning and shrewd politician that has a new, headstrong strategy for winning the war against terror in Afghanistan and yearns to use Roth and her media ties as a springboard to tell the public of his plan.

The second storyline involves two young fresh out of college students named Ernest Rodriguez (Michael Pena) and Arian Finch (Derek Luke) who have decided to enlist in the marines and eventually become stationed in the mountains of Afghanistan.  These two soldiers become involved in the very mission that Senator Irving has hatched as a swift solution to the war on terror, but as the two get stranded away from their helicopter and are left seriously injured and for dead, it brings into question the validity of their choice to fight for their country, not to mention the relative worth of Rothís plan.

The third - and my favourite - storyline takes place in Los Angeles where a wise old political science professor, Malley (played with a pitch perfect sobriety and composure by Redford), sits down with one of his frequently truant students named Todd (Andrew Garfield, who plays wonderfully opposite of Redford).  Todd is one of the worst kind of young slackers: He is exceptionally unmotivated, indifferently lazy, and actively cynical about everything, but he is undoubtedly a brilliant young man that is letting his intelligence and wit get wasted by not attending class and making something more of himself.

Their conversations are some of the most refreshingly open and honest that Iíve seen in a film this year and its terrific to see a member from a old and new school of thinking go toe-to-toe on a variety of issues.  Todd manages to make a convincing argument about complacency and docility, not to mention why not being active politically would hardly be any worse that being politically active.  Malley, on the other hand, also manages to give credence to his concerns about letting another promising bright mind of tomorrow slip through his fingers and become an average nobody.  Their discussions eventually come to a head when Malley describes the story of two of his past promising students, who gave up a chance for an education to fight for their country.  Of course, these "two students" are the same two that become involved in the Afghan mission in the filmís other plot line.

When LIONS FOR LAMBS focuses on the two stories involving the politician and reporter and the professor and student, the film is thoroughly thought-provoking and intelligent.  It is through their respective conversations where the film brings up issues of the failures of the Bush administration, the lack of success of military campaigns in the war on terror, and how politicians are actually conniving salesmen that use the media to sell their doctrines to a public that is largely ignorant and meek-minded with the issues.  Certainly, the film picks a lot of targets, but the fascinating aspect here is that it is not a one note attack on the White House and the war.  LIONS FOR LAMBS makes a convincing argument that just about everyone is at fault in some capacity, from the public to the media to the military minds.

The performances are absolutely critical here, and all of them are exemplary.  Cruise in particular is exceptional in a politician role that could have easily been played up to stereotypes.  Whatís refreshing here is that Irving actually believes in his political ideology and at least speaks his mind openly and honestly about his feelings (at one point when the reporter seems to lack interest in his war strategy, he matter-of-factly asks her, "Do you or do you now want to wind the war on terror? Itís the biggest yes no question of our generation").  Streep is equally secure playing opposite of Cruise as a staunch and strong minded pragmatist, thinking that no war or fighting could be a solution.  Both characters have conviction and manage to elicit our empathy with their feelings.

I especially liked the sequences with Redford and Garfield, who both develop such a rhythm and systematic pace to their discussions.  Itís kind of amazing the territory they cover as they manage to simultaneously talk about everything and nothing at the same time.  As is the case with the other story thread with Cruise and Streep, the key to this relationship with the professor and the uncaring student is that they both inject honesty and passion with their respective opinions.  This allows for our engagement in what they talk about.

If the film has a failing then it is certainly with the third of it that involves the soldiers in battle, which ends in a fairly anti-climatic fashion, not to mention that Redford does not infuse these moments with any real tension of pathos (as far as war battle scenes go, LIONS FOR LAMBS is fairly lackluster here).  The film's structure also seems a bit deliberate and too conveniently packaged.  This is Redfordís seventh film as a director and it certainly is not among his best, but LIONS FOR LAMBS is a strong little film with ideas that is well crafted, acted, and directed.  The film is talky, but at least the characters engage in discussions that bring out serious issues and concerns.  Refreshingly, the film never slavishly talks down to the audience; instead, it raises hot button concerns that elicit our contemplation after we leave the theatre.  Any film that can do that with the relative ease that LIONS FOR LAMBS does canít be labeled as a failure.

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