Tom Cruise’s first undertaking as co-head of United Artists is politically top-heavy with simultaneous political conversations, made all the more cumbersome by its extravagant cast that includes Cruise, Meryl Streep, and Robert Redford, who also handles directorial duties. A pungent vapor of earnestness permeates Redford’s unimaginative handling of newbie screenwriter Matthew Michael Carnahan’s three-note script that toggles between an Afghan battlefield crisis, a senator’s one-on-one press meeting with a TV journalist, and a professor/student conference. For a film attempting to grapple with the seething anger of an American populace left hung out to dry by the Bush administration, Lions for Lambs is far to muted and meek to achieve its perceived goals of inciting social activism.
The film’s biblical-sounding title equates American cowardly leadership as lambs sending brave soldier lions into an arena of battle where no competent plan has been put in place. Would-be Presidential candidate Senator Jasper Irving (Cruise) invites left-leaning veteran reporter Janine Roth (Streep) for an hour-long audience with him at his Washington D.C. office to leak a surgical strike military plan in Afghanistan that he’s certain will turn the war around.
Streep adopts a wounded puppy attitude for most of Irving’s self-aggrandizing monologue concerning a strategy that, as it turns out, is taking effect while they speak. Cruise doesn’t just chew the scenery; he massages, charms, intimidates, stalks and nails every bullet point of his neocon agenda with the ardor of a Baptist minister. Although the display of emotion is completely out of character for such a cold-blooded politician, the performance is nevertheless hypnotizing, and presents the most interesting aspect of the movie.
Redford has a more thankless task of character development as Dr. Stephen Malley a California College professor attempting to invigorate his promising but wayward student Todd (Andrew Garfield) to take civic action. Todd has traded in his superior debating abilities and questioning mind in favor of fraternity life and savoring the flesh of his latest girlfriend.
Malley establishes the parameters of the discussion when he offers Todd a “blue collar B” for the semester if the lackadaisical student will agree to stop coming to his class, rather than merely dropping in from time to time. Too insulted to take the bait, Todd stays for Malley’s preaching session that promises to recalibrate his appropriately cynical value system.
Part of Malley’s burning motivation to awaken Todd’s latent activist spirit lies in the decision of two of his former students to join the military as their way of taking direct political action. Arian (Derek Luke) and Ernest (Michael Pena) took advantage of one of the professor’s classroom debates to display their military induction letters that put them stranded on a desolate mountaintop in Afghanistan. So while the anti-war teacher expounds the power of the people, and the Washington Senator plays editor and publisher, two soldiers bleed and freeze in the midst of ever-encroaching Taliban forces.
You can sense the filmmakers trying to avoid seeming candidly leftist, as if they were walking on squeaky floorboards in bare feet. They get ready to say or do something radical, think better of it, and sit back down with an air of humiliation hanging over them.
If Lions for Lambs were produced as the collegiate stage play that its plot constraints indicate, it would still seem like a sheepish attempt at social theater. Here is a film made to preach to the converted. It doesn’t tell us anything we haven’t already known for years. America is still screwed. MTW