I don’t suspect that too many Bill O’Reilly fans or Fox News Channel watchers are going to give a thumbs-up to Lions For Lambs. Let’s get the political stuff out of the way right off the bat: this is an unapologetically liberal film that will irritate the hell out of conservatives. (I refuse to use that obnoxious Red State/Blue State terminology.) It was made by liberals, for liberals. Does it preach to the choir? Absolutely. If you’re a liberal, you will likely sit there nodding your head as the film confirms things you already believe. If you’re a conservative, you’ll either be out the door in the first ten minutes or else you will sit fuming for ninety. A better film would try to ingratiate itself to both sides, hoping to locate some common ground. But that’s not what this picture wants to be. It is what it is and, my own left-leaning views being what they are, I liked it on those terms, even as I acknowledge that some complexity would have been nice.
The subject is the War on Terror. Tom Cruise plays Senator Jasper Irving (as Republican-sounding name as the filmmakers could conceive, I guess). He has presidential aspirations and, as such, has devised a new strategy for winning the war. Irving spells it out in detail to skeptical journalist Janine Roth (Meryl Streep), hoping she will do a big story to garner public support for the military action. Although Irving talks with great sincerity and confidence, Roth feels guilty that she and other members of the media previously bought into the false suggestion that Iraq was somehow tied into the 9/11 attacks. She doesn’t want to drink the Republican Kool-Aid another time.
Meanwhile, on the grounds of an unnamed California university which we all know is probably Berkeley, Political Science professor Stephen Malley (Robert Redford, who also directed) meets with his student, Todd Hayes (excellent newcomer Andrew Garfield). Todd is a skilled debater and has a lot of potential as a mover and shaker, but he’s become distracted by girls and partying. Malley tries to talk him into getting more politically and socially involved. He tells Todd about two former students who also had potential: Ernest Rodriguez (Michael Pena) and Arian Finch (Derek Luke). They were so idealistic that they signed up for the military during the Iraq War. This sounds crazy to Todd, but like Malley says, at least they did something when they could easily have coasted.
In a third story line, we see that Rodriguez and Finch are two of the soldiers taking part in Irving’s new initiative, which doesn’t go as planned. They fall behind enemy lines and are surrounded by terrorists. The military attempts to mount a rescue mission before it’s too late.
Lions For Lambs was written by Matthew Michael Carnahan, who also wrote the similarly themed The Kingdom. I thought that film started off ambitiously but got bogged down with action movie clichés; it feels like Carnahan took everything he really wanted to say in that screenplay and put it in this one instead. And that’s a lot. Lions is incredibly talky, and what I mean is that talking is just about the only thing that happens here. Senator Irving and Janine sit in his office and talk. Professor Malley and Todd sit in his office and talk. There are flashbacks of Rodriguez and Finch standing at the front of Malley’s classroom talking. How much you like the film will depend at least partially on whether you can tolerate a story that is told almost exclusively through conversation.
While it admittedly feels more like a play than a motion picture, I got into Lions For Lambs because the conversations were passionate and well-written. It came as somewhat of a surprise to see Carnahan listed as the writer in the end credits; I was absolutely certain that the script had been penned by Aaron Sorkin, as it has the same kind of politically-charged rat-a-tat dialogue that was his trademark on “The West Wing” and in A Few Good Men. Perhaps Sorkin’s style was an inspiration. Anyway, Carnahan manages to pack in a number of thoughtful (if admittedly obvious) arguments about the War on Terror and how it was – and continues to be – sold to the American public. The actors know how to take the heavy dialogue and make it work, and it’s a pleasure to hear them do so.
For me it wasn’t the chattiness of the film that was a weak link. If there’s a flaw here, it’s that the movie doesn’t have the same sense of character development that other recent political dramas like Rendition and In the Valley of Elah had. Rather than being fully fleshed-out human beings, the characters of Lions For Lambs are all archetypal. Senator Irving represents all Republicans, Janine represents the Media, Malley represents Idealism, etc. I think the story’s overall effect would have been greater had the characters been allowed some shades of gray rather than being drawn in completely black-or-white terms.
The title Lions For Lambs refers to a quote Malley reads about the irony of lambs leading lions into battle. He goes on to explain that the “best and brightest” are often led by the worst, who use connections or manipulations to get ahead. I think we all know who specifically this idea is referring to. If your skin is crawling just thinking about it, skip this movie and catch something else instead. If you are inwardly proclaiming the righteousness of that statement, here’s the picture for you.
( out of four)
Lions For Lambs is rated R for some war violence and language. The running time is 1 hour and 28 minutes.
Return to The Aisle Seat