LIONS FOR LAMBS
Running Time 92 minutes
Written by Matthew Michael Carnahan
Directed by Robert Redford
Starring Robert Redford, Meryl Streep, Tom Cruise
For liberals, a corrupt war takes as much energy to police as a fierce election. For Robert Redford, who is somewhere left of Bill Maher, fighting everything from nuclear reactors to George Bush’s tax incentives has burned up so many calories I’m surprised he’s got enough strength left over in the morning to brush his teeth. I applaud him for putting his heart where his mouth is instead of his foot, but his new movie Lions for Lambs, which the airbrushed left-wing celebrity liberal directed and stars in, is such a pointless, long-winded, loud-mouthed fiasco that I am convinced he should save some of that rhetoric and run for office himself. Lambs is utterly lacking in any kind of recognizable cinematic arc, convincing logic, coherent narrative or persuasive political viewpoint. I don’t even know what it thinks it’s supposed to be, but I know one thing: it’s not a movie. This thing is so bad it wouldn’t keep the Dixie Chicks awake.
Inspired by declining public confidence in President Bush’s insincere guarantees to end the war in Iraq, Mr. Redford has hopes of seizing the attention of slumbering election-eve lambs who might be ready at last to wake from lethargy, turn into lions and burst from their cages in time to stand for something before it’s too late. Bravo for the idea, but no thanks for fumbling the message so ineptly. Wafting between three vignettes like a nervous ping-pong ball, the movie presents Meryl Streep as a respected right-wing journalist summoned to Capitol Hill to interview Tom Cruise, as an oily, double-talking U.S. senator who creepily flatters her into his confidence to report a secret plan that will end the war. How does he plan to pull off this miracle? Why, by distracting attention from the real issues and declaring war on yet another country that is easier to conquer and destroy. Meanwhile, a political science professor in a California university (Robert Redford), a cross between a fading John Edwards and a soap-opera Alan Dershowitz, is red in the face from trying vainly to convince his brainiest and most challenging student to stand up and be counted before he turns cynical. And off in the trenches of Afghanistan, two of the best and brightest pupils of Redford’s teaching career fall out of a helicopter—stranded, isolated from their battalion, wounded to the point of near-death and fighting for survival as the enemy surrounds them. So that’s it. The cocky Republican senator with presidential aspirations who believes in wiping out terrorists, no matter how many innocent people have to die to do it, hides a firm belief in fighting violence with more bloodshed behind a supercilious patriotic grin. The supersmart veteran news hen knows when she’s being duped by a mouthpiece for the president, and risks her own job by refusing to be used to spread propaganda that will whitewash the failures of a conservative senator so that he can soft-pedal his way into the White House. The idealistic professor believes it’s more noble to try and fail than failing to try. The boys who enlisted to avenge the attack on the democracy they love learn the only answer is self-sacrifice. But these people are cardboard boxes containing sealed political ideologies. None of them are clearly drawn characters; they’re talking heads staging a talkathon of verbal diarrhea on the tiny scale of an experimental Off Broadway play without intermission. The dialogue sounds like a political science textbook.
Worse still, the film is a mire of narrative confusion. All three conversations seem to be taking place in different time frames. Redford is a Vietnam vet who refers to that military holocaust in the haziest terms. It’s never clear what he wants from himself or his students. Cruise rants on about wiping out the Taliban, yet the canvas he targets after Iraq is finished off is Iran, not Afghanistan. The pair of buddies who fall to their deaths were the two most brilliant minds of Redford’s career, and they both enlisted to fight for American justice after 9/11, following his advice to “get involved,” yet his current star pupil, who wants no part of an “immoral war,” is an even bigger disappointment for the opposite reason. Just what does anyone want? Sometimes the lions eat the lambs, and sometimes it’s the other way around. Puzzlement reigns.
Straining to connect the personal with the political, the film consists of all these people engaged in dull debates as mechanical as they are incredible, two of them held in offices. The three stars never appear together in a single scene. With radicalized panegyrics instead of philosophical humanizing, it’s hard to understand what all the speechifying is about. Still, it’s interesting to watch seasoned actors try to make so much stiff, didactic jabber sound like it could actually come out of the mouths of real people.
This is Redford’s first directorial job in seven years, and his most blatantly confrontational. The star power will undoubtedly lure some people to the box office, but sensing the real danger of financial disaster, Redford and company go to cautionary lengths to achieve bipartisan diplomacy and offend nobody. They don’t name names or point fingers at political parties. The nice-guy result is that the stars have nothing new to say and nobody has a point of view that seems anything more than irritatingly irrelevant. Yes, some vital issues are addressed, but the “Fellow Americans, get off your cans and get involved!” alarm has the hollow sound of all-too-familiar election-year rhetoric. Even though Lions for Lambs clocks in at a mercifully short 90 minutes, it seems to drag on for decades. You can’t deny its good intentions, but it fails on every level—as agitprop, as political debate and, most of all, as a movie with enough satisfying substance to keep you from dozing.