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A number of serious questions are raised in the 90-minute running time of Lions for Lambs: Should we trust the architects of the Iraq boondoggle to expand their “war on terror”? Is the news media implicated in the Bush administration’s fraudulent case for the invasion? Has a disengaged electorate ceded the country’s direction to a cadre of fanatics? And can Tom Cruise and his partners resuscitate United Artists, the venerable studio they now control? The movie doesn’t really settle any of these issues, but one conclusion is incontestable: If UA becomes viable again, it won’t be on the strength of this well-meaning mashup of action flick and lecture series.
The windiest of Hollywood’s current flurry of Iraq-inspired dramas, Lions for Lambs is basically two conversations. One is an interview granted to veteran TV-news reporter Janine Roth (Meryl Streep) by young right-wing U.S. Senator Jasper Irving (Cruise); the other is a student-teacher conference between venerable liberal professor Dr. Stephen Malley (Robert Redford, who also directed) and uninvolved student Todd Hayes (Andrew Garfield). Occurring simultaneously is a bungled mission in Afghanistan, where wounded U.S. soldiers Arian Finch (Derek Luke) and Ernest Rodriguez (professional casualty Michael Peña, who spent most of World Trade Center under tons of rubble) are trapped on a ridge as Taliban fighters advance. Rodriguez and Finch, we soon learn, are two of Malley’s former students, possessed of the idealism the privileged Hayes lacks.
Scripted by Matthew Michael Carnahan, who also wrote this year’s The Kingdom, the film reveals its sympathies with its title: “Lions for lambs,” the prof explains, is derived from the remark of a German officer during World War I, who praised British troops as lions sent to slaughter by their foolish commanders. The Afghanistan sequence illustrates the point, yet the two dialogues barely touch the subject. Of course it’s appalling when soldiers die because their superiors draw inadequate plans, but the movie’s talking heads are discussing the fundamentals of Bush’s campaign against radical Islam, not just tactics.
In the interest of balance, the boyishly exuberant Cruise takes the pro-war position, insisting that everything the United States does (or might do) in the Middle East qualifies as self-defense. But his essential message is one Hollywood has been delivering for decades: It’s all TV’s fault. “You guys sold it,” he taunts Roth, calling TV news “a windsock.” (The fidgety reporter doesn’t offer much of a response, but how could she? It’s true.) The exchanges between Malley and Hayes are less pointed, although they lead to an idea popular with good-government types: the supposed need for a program that would send all youths, whether idealistic or disengaged, into the military or some other form of national service.
Dramatically, the three-part structure leads to two chatty deadlocks and one tossed-off tragedy. Redford’s direction, as usual, is solid and undistinctive, but the film suffers from inauthentic details, especially in the Washington episode. Perhaps Carnahan and Redford thought the timeliness of their themes would suffice, but the lack of believability undermines the big talk. It’s not just that the movie jumbles local geography; Hollywood pictures set in D.C. usually do that. More perplexing is that the film presents a brash Republican senator as a designer of administration war policy, even though Bush has always excluded Congress from a significant role in foreign affairs. And that it sends a camera-less network reporter to interview a senator, although to TV producers a news story without video is not a story. Such lapses are as damaging to Lions for Lambs as its verbosity. They suggest that the filmmakers, for all their willingness to pontificate on current affairs, haven’t been paying much more attention than Professor Malley’s oblivious student.