Grrrr! Woof! Rhetoric-Packed, Bloviating Lions for Lambs Lacks Killer Instinct

sarris lionsforlambs1h Grrrr! Woof! Rhetoric Packed, Bloviating Lions for Lambs Lacks Killer InstinctLIONS FOR LAMBS
Running time 88 minutes
Directed by Robert Redford
Written by Matthew Michael Carnahan
Starring Robert Redford, Meryl Streep, Tom Cruise

Robert Redford’s Lions for Lambs, from a screenplay by Matthew Michael Carnahan, plays out as a mountain of self-righteously guilt-ridden rhetoric perched on a molehill of narrative. Even the title of this feature-length disquisition doesn’t sound right to me. As a character in the film puts it, German officers in the First World War marveled at the bravery of British soldiers, but added contemptuously that these men were lions being led by lambs. I’m sure Mr. Carnahan has researched the remark, but despite the mellifluous alliteration involved, I can’t help thinking that the Germans were thinking of stupidly stubborn donkeys rather than gentle lambs pouring their brave lions into virtually suicidal attacks on the enemy trenches. Besides, Bush, Cheney and company, of whom Mr. Redford and Mr. Carnahan clearly disapprove, can hardly be likened to lambs.

As the ever-helpful production notes for this doomed project tell us, “The inspiration for Lions for Lambs originally began with the unconscious flick of a remote control. While leisurely watching the tube one night, young screenwriter Matthew Michael Carnahan switched away from a harrowing television story about Iraq to search for sports and then wondered why. Why, in a time when so many people express concern over the direction of our nation, are we tempted to turn away? Why are we not looking at and talking about these things directly, passionately, with all the fervor and emotion that the ideas of freedom and hope for the future and idealistic sacrifice involve?”

Why, indeed? This is only a brief sample of the abstract speechifying with which the film is bombarded for the greater length of its otherwise short duration. The avalanche of words, words, words is set off by Meryl Streep’s remorsefully dovish journalist Janine Roth interviewing defiantly hawkish Tom Cruise’s Senator Jasper Irving, an unannounced presidential candidate, on not Iraq, but Afghanistan, which now seems in need of a new “surge”-like strategy to destroy the Taliban once and for all. The senator tries to keep the suspicious journalist at bay with hints of secret plans in the works that will change the course of the war on terror.

Meanwhile, across the continent from the dove-hawk confrontation in Senator Irving’s Washington, D.C., Congressional office, Robert Redford’s Dr. Stephen Malley, a professor of political science at a West Coast university, as well as a disillusioned former anti-Vietnam War protestor, tries to convince a bright but academically disengaged student named Todd (Andrew Garfield) into becoming more committed to the ongoing struggle for truth and justice in our political affairs. The professor’s tactic is to tell Todd the story of two former bright but underprivileged minority students, Ernest (Michael Pena) and Arian (Derek Luke), who chose to enlist in the Marine Corps because of their limited opportunities elsewhere. This, despite the professor’s frantic pleas that they accept instead the scholarships he had arranged for them to graduate school.

At the very same time as one conversation is raging on the East Coast and another on the West Coast, Ernest and Arian are preparing for an airborne assault on a mountaintop in Afghanistan, precisely the plan Senator Irving was pontificating about during his interview with Janine Roth. That the plan will end badly is only one of the foregone conclusions with which Lions for Lambs is too amply endowed.

For the life of me, I can’t figure out what the point of all this onscreen palaver is supposed to be. Of course, we should all be better human beings. So what else is new? And is a time-coded movie talkfest the best way to persuade us? Yet, here is the strangest thing of all. As I was listening to all the chatter, I kept unconsciously reaching for a remote to turn it off because none of it seemed dated at all, even by the few months it took to shoot it. It seemed instead part and parcel of the essentially unchanging media routines in which we seem to be permanently engulfed. Hey, what about Joe Torre signing with the Los Angeles Dodgers, and David Nalbandian knocking over Roger Federer for the second time in a row?