In Defense of Robert Redford's 'Lions for Lambs'

Lions for Lambs is stiff, preachy and probably too earnest for its own good, but it still deserves to be seen. Why? Because even though it's an old-fashioned movie with a time-worn plot line and features veteran stars like Robert Redford, Tom Cruise and Meryl Streep, it's an attempt to do something more than just entertain you for 90 minutes, and for that it should be applauded.

If you're aware of United Artists' Lions for Lambs by now, it's probably more because of its almost immediate designation as a critical and commercial disaster. Nowadays if a film doesn't have almost immediate, colossal box office success, it's often treated as a bastard child by both the industry and the public at large.

What's worse is that because the film dares to delve into our foreign policy in Iraq and Afghanistan, the corruption of our nation's media and the plight of our young enlistees, Lions for Lambs' poor performance has been cited as yet more proof that American audiences have no interest in political films anymore. First, this September, there was In The Valley of Elah, a drama about Iraq war vets and their families, which starred Tommy Lee Jones, Charlize Theron and Susan Sarandon. It received raves and is still considered an Oscar contender if for nothing else but "best actor" for Jones. But it was probably just released too early, before audiences were over tripe like The Game Plan and ready for weightier fare. It's grossed only $6 million.

In the following month came Rendition, which boasted heartthrobs Jake Gyllenhaal and Reese Witherspoon but also mediocre reviews and a fairly vague and incomprehensible ad campaign. It also tanked with a total gross of $9 million. Despite the presence of megastars like Robert Redford, Meryl Streep and Tom Cruise it's hard to understand why Hollywood would have thought Lions for Lambs would have performed any differently. It's made only $12 million in two weeks, the worst numbers of Tom Cruise's career when inflation is taken into account. It may have been better to release it like most smaller scale, more challenging films are nowadays, a few major cities first, then expansion to the masses. But for whatever reason, it was released in thousands of theaters to compete with the infinitely more mainstream entertainment like American Gangster ($101 million in three weeks) and Bee Movie ($94 million in three weeks).

Lions for Lambs is already a flop and has already been derided by critics as "dull" (L.A. Times), "clunky" (New York Magazine) and "wince"-inducing (New Yorker). But someone really ought to stand up for its redeeming qualities as well admit as its clearly apparent faults.

Lions for Lambs contains three interwoven narratives all taking place roughly within an hour or so. The first features a very strong Meryl Streep as a once principled progressive journalist who's now morphed into a somewhat less principled, but skeptical shill for a network modeled after CNN being given an exclusive interview by a neocon Republican senator, Jasper Irving, played by Tom Cruise with his usual mixture of smarm and charm. The story he's feeding her is about a small combat operation he's spearheaded in Afghanistan, which leads us to story No. 2, which provides the only real action in the traditional sense of the word and features two young soldiers played by Derek Luke (of Antowne Fisher) and Michael Peña (who you may recognize from Crash) involved in Sen. Irving's mission. The last story thread of Lions for Lambs features the film's director, Robert Redford, as the two soldiers' former college professor at an unnamed California university, who uses their decision to enlist in the Marines to set an example for one of his stereotypically apathetic male students.

The soldiers' efforts to pull off Sen. Irving's mission periodically interrupts what are essentially scenes of two people talking in a room. Cruise and Streep in his office. Redford and student (played by Andrew Garfield) in his. This is the film's most obvious problem. It's not cinematic enough. The film would make a dynamite play because the performances are fantastic and the dialogue first-rate if somewhat theatrical. But it's hard to justify shelling out $10 for what amounts to political debate. Then again, the debates are terrific.

Take Cruise and Streep's scenes together. Cruise's senator is earnest and smooth, and he makes the neoconservative ideology seem almost sensible. He acknowledges mistakes but also perfectly captures the right-wing propensity to want to ignore the past and whitewash the future. Meanwhile Streep's character is full of contradictions as well. Highly suspicious of Cruise's motives and objectives, she is dealing with the guilt of having helped sell these wars at the outset, and so by the end of their confrontation, we come to feel that she is just as dirty as Cruise's senator.

Redford has long established his progressive reputation, particularly with his environmental activism, and he brings his iconic stature to a role that could easily become fairly cliched, that of the idealistic, liberal professor. His dialogue is not remotely subtle and rarely deep but it also happens to be very right and delivered with such honesty and conviction that you'll likely be muttering in agreement with him as he does. "They bank on your apathy, they bank on your willful ignorance," Redford tells his student, "... How can you enjoy the good life when Rome is burning?"

Therein lies the film's recurring theme, which is that those of us on the sidelines, whatever our political persuasion or professional position, need to get involved and to care about what's happening to our country. Redford's character is seen pleading in a flashback with Luke and Peña's characters, trying to talk them out of enlisting, but he later applauds them for what they did, even though he disagrees with the war's rationale.

What angers Redford's character, and I presume Redford the actor-director as well, is how young men like these two, often minorities, are sent off to war by unapologetic, insincere politicians like the character Cruise plays. Redford gets his movie title from a quote by a World War I German general who would say of his opposition, "Never have I seen such lions led by such lambs." It is a bitter irony that the two most noble characters in the film, the students played by Luke and Peña, opt to get involved but make a poor choice when they do.

The film's message is one we've heard before and one many people in the audience won't need convincing to agree with, but that doesn't make it any less important, compelling or moving -- which this film ultimately is. No, it doesn't have a nude, computer-animated Angelina Jolie like Beowulf. But it what it does possess is a heartfelt attempt to awake Americans from their slumber and to shake things up.

It took real guts for Redford to make such an unabashedly liberal movie that would almost surely invite a torrent of criticism for being uncommercial and too political. That's enough to make this movie worthy of attention and re-examination.

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