by Michael Joshua Rowin
Lions for Lambs
Dir. Robert Redford, U.S., Twentieth Century Fox
Don't look now, but some guy named Matthew Michael Carnahan has split his loyalties and penned the most unintentionally revealing pair of Iraq War films to date—if by revealing we mean self-incriminating. The first, the abhorrent The Kingdom, portrays America's role in the Middle East as unobstructed spectacle, a last gasp salvaging of packaged shock and awe that for many Americans must evoke either wistful memories of the first term Bush Administration's arrogant first-term belief in indestructible vengeance or perhaps a desperate denial of its vanishing formidability. The second, the Robert Redford–directed Lions for Lambs, plays as mea culpa, substituting static talking points blather for jerky-cam gunplay. Softly self-righteous and at least two years behind the times, Lions for Lambs seeks to instruct its viewers on the total failure of the system to prevent the disaster in Iraq and Afghanistan, from neocon chicken hawking to media complacency to military vulnerability, but instead merely reiterates the weak-willed posturing of the mainstream left.
Like so many recent topical efforts (Crash, Babel, Syriana, Rendition), Lions for Lambs hops on the “everything is connected” bandwagon and in so doing acts more as a superficial diagram of geopolitics than anything resembling a dramatic film. In Washington, D.C., Capitol Hill journalist Janine Roth (Meryl Streep, trading in her role as torture-defending baddie in Rendition) interviews sanctimonious Republican senator Jasper Irving (Tom Cruise) about his new, aggressive military initiative just underway in Afghanistan; in the process the ideological opponents argue about America's waning credibility abroad, the tactical mistakes of the War on Terror, and the press’ culpability in swallowing White House lies. Meanwhile, of course, at an unnamed California university political science professor Dr. Malley (Redford) challenges a talented but apathetic student, Todd (Andrew Garfield), to fulfill his potential in a mentoring tête-à-tête. As an example he cites the unsolicited bravery of two former students, Arian (Derek Luke) and Ernest (Michael Peña), who volunteered to serve their country despite almost guaranteed entrance to grad school. They are now trapped behind enemy lines in the snowy mountains (and one of the worst designed soundstages in recent memory) of Afghanistan, soon-to-be casualties in . . . Irving's new military initiative. (See? Everything is connected!) This last storyline exists simply to martyr Arian and Ernest, and it is so clichéd that it sadly counteracts audience empathy. Flashbacks—to a classroom session where they announce their enlistment and to Redford trying to dissuade them—merely set-up the inevitable. The Redford-Garfield thread is—there's just no other way to describe it—painfully didactic. “Rome is burning, son!” Malley practically scolds in response to the smug student's cynicism, but his addresses contain such bland and overly recited indictments of American escapism that it's difficult to figure out just who Redford or Carnahan think they're convincing. The scene's perfunctory shot-reverse shot approach assures that little aesthetic or visual wit complements the stage-bound dialogue.
That leaves Streep and Cruise (acting!) to pick up the slack. But Irving is such an obvious flag-waving, Homeland Security–loving, we've-learned-from-our-mistakes-so-let's-make-them-again villain that taking pleasure in Roth picking apart his rationalizations is just too easy. Lines like “After 9/11 we had everyone on our side” typify the level of original discourse the film offers viewers more than vaguely familiar with the arguments put forth in a daily antiwar op-ed column. The only novel angle is, for perhaps the first time on nationwide movie screens, an accounting of the failure of America's mainstream press to properly or thoroughly investigate official stories designed to mislead the public. Streep’s paper has been bought by a conglomerate and since then, she confesses to Irving, the bottom line has been more important than investigative journalism, resulting in lazy fear mongering and war trumpeting to boost sales. We know this story, too, certainly—there's nothing in Lions for Lambs that could be considered a revelation—but it's been a missing factor in the other Iraq War films and comes closest to evaluating Hollywood's own place in the media landscape. But while it offers hope that maybe we'll see Hollywood take a full-fledged look in the mirror sometime soon, the film's attempt doesn't stand on its own. Carnahan deflates a confrontational scene between Roth and her editor by resorting to inane humor: “Is it hot in here?” Streep repeatedly asks as she turns down the thermostat while challenging her boss not to run Irving's propaganda gift-wrapped as a hard-hitting exclusive.
Worse, for all of Carnahan’s and Redford's attempts to clear the air, Lions for Lambs actually clouds it with the same misguided liberal antiwar strategy that's made the last five years such a battle of political attrition—after standing by or even abetting the Iraq War equivocating dissenters now march to the same “we love the troops” drumbeat as neocon apologists in order to ensure their moral infallibility. Thus, African-American Arian (the irony of his name is noted by the film in passing) and Hispanic Ernest serve as pawns not just for the “lambs” in high command willing to sacrifice their “lion” men as cannon fodder in an ill-conceived war but also for the white liberal artists in need of perfect examples for their outrage. That's the problem with films like Home of the Brave, Rendition, and now Lions for Lambs—their evidence is cherry-picked to be so beyond reproach as to be obvious and unenlightening, politically correct "slam-dunks" that obfuscate the more complicated realities of the Iraq debacle. I never thought I'd be writing this, but so far In the Valley of Elah and Redacted—in varied ways both insightful yet clumsy films—have come the closest to capturing how war uproots preconceptions and, when carelessly sought and hastily planned, points out the fallacy of ethical certitude. More preaching primer than multilayered investigation, Lions for Lambs is the complete opposite, as politically slight as its unimaginative theatricality is aesthetically dull, and lacking even in a human interest angle to make up for those faults. If Redford, an elder Hollywood left icon whose lackluster body of work has so frequently belied his admirable political convictions, thinks Lions for Lambs is even close enough at this late stage of the game to offer something new to the dialogue about Iraq, he's sorely mistaken. A few years ago the sheer existence of Lions for Lambs at the box office would have been something, but right now we need to do better. Much, much better.