It is more op-ed than movie. “Lions for Lambs” is a well-meaning attempt to encapsulate and move forward one segment of our current political debates. But it is mostly speeches, not stories.
In an effort to impose some narrative and characters onto a debate about politics and culture, there are three different settings. At the same time, a journalist interviews a Senator about a new military strategy in Afghanistan, a professor speaks to a student who seems disengaged, and two soldiers in Afghanistan who are a part of the new initiative.
The journalist (Meryl Streep) is skeptical. She points out that the US has been wrong many times since 9/11. Our military strategy has failed. The Senator (Tom Cruise) acknowledges the mistakes but says that is why the American people should believe him now. We have learned from our mistakes. This time, he insists, we know what we are doing.
The Senator tells the journalist that the media has its share of the blame. It failed to play its essential role — its critical role, in both senses of the word. The press was afraid of being considered disloyal, or lazy, or worried about making money. And so it did not ask hard questions, it did not hold the politicians accountable, and it buried the hard truth under stories about celebrities.
The professor (director Robert Redford) tells the student (Andrew Garfield) he is too bright to give up on the idea of making a difference, that he no longer has the option to have a nice life and let other people do the dirty work of making the hard decisions.
But the professor had some other students who took his words about becoming involved and did exactly what he did not want them to do; they enlisted.
In addition to the arguments about the particulars of politics and national security, the movie is ambitious enough to take on meta issues of action vs. inaction as its characters, like Hamlet, wonder “whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles, And by opposing end them.” But Hamlet comes to a conclusion. The talking characters her never transcend that sense of constriction, uncertainty, and inertia.
This is the first movie to come out of the revitalized United Artists studio since Tom Cruise and his producing partner Paula Wagner took over. But the movie is anything but vital. It is inert. Cruise as producer does not seem to have a clear idea of what kind of movie he is trying to create. And Cruise as actor does not seem to have a clear idea of the character he is trying to create; at times he seems to be doing a tribute to — or is it a parody of? — Jack Nicholson’s performance opposite him in “A Few Good Men.” It’s as though he is channeling Nicholson’s comments: “You have the luxury of not knowing what I know…my existence, while grotesque and incomprehensible to you, saves lives.” If only this movie had a single line as vivid.
It is absurd to think that a movie can or should provide answers in a situation as complicated as this one. But it is fair to expect insights. And it is fair to insist on characters who are more than plastic tokens for some sort of board game, and this film’s characters never really come to life. More important, it has the inherent drawback to any attack on ideologues — its reliance on rationality and discourse comes across as tepid and uncertain. Most important, it abandons its temperate tone to become shrill near the end with an over-the-top Hollywood conclusion for one of the pairs and a cheap shot at a triple-ethnic-named newscaster who prattles about a pop star’s divorce while the headlines of the serious stories are on a crawl at the bottom of the screen next to the sports scores and stock ticker. The call for reason is undermined by the very tactics the movie decries.
Parents should know that this movie includes brief scenes of graphic battle violence, with characters injured and killed. There is also some strong language.
Families who see this movie should talk about what the administration and the current contenders for the Presidential nomination are proposing for Afghanistan and Iraq. What have been our greatest successes and failures? What are the strongest and weakest points made by the Senator, the journalist, the professor, and the student?
Families who appreciate this movie will also appreciate documentaries like Control Room, No End in Sight, and The War Tapes.