Directed by Robert Redford
Robert Redford, Meryl Steep, Tom Cruise, Derek Luke, Michael Peña
United Artists, Rated R
I once dated this guy who was super hot and super smart and super sincere and when I told my friends I was thinking of dumping him they were all like what’s wrong with you, this guy’s freakin’ perfect, and I was like yeah I know, I know, what the hell’s my problem?
Lions for Lambs features a fine cast, solid direction, and its central message—that Americans must be active agents (lions) in this democracy lest the endeavor falls to the hands (or hooves) of lambs—is unassailable.
Because—go with me here I change the frame of reference—we now live a post-Crash world. And the blowback from that film’s 2006 Best Picture win means we’re all looking a bit more skeptically at movies whose characters walk around in contrived situations saying terribly obvious things nearly on the level of a Randy Newman song.
Now, it’s fine to make a movie about ideas. It’s even essential to make a movie that advocates an ethics of citizenry through action. But in choosing the medium of drama to make that point, one better damn sure have characters who do more than stand in for placards that read Conflicted Media Representative, Republican Young Gun, or Generic Movie Slacker. By that measure, Lions for Lambs barely passes muster.
The film unfolds among three plots. In one, a reporter for a CNN-style news network (Meryl Streep) gets an exclusive interview with a young Republican senator (Tom Cruise) eager to publicize a new offensive in Afghanistan. We see the offensive go horribly wrong in the second plot: an American carrier copter is attacked and two young soldiers (Derek Luke and Michael Peña) are stranded and injured on the icy mountains of Afghanistan. Meanwhile, on the campus of a university in sunny California, a twinkly-eyed college PoliSci professor (Redford) confronts the apathy of a fratboy (Andrew Garfield) who, for frat- and female-related reasons, has been ditching a buttload of classes.
The first whiff of Crash comes when, after some digging, the fratboy justifies the twinkle in his professor’s eye with a confession: yes, alright, alright, the real reason he’s stopped going to class is cuz, like, he’s disillusioned with, you know, the decaying state of American democracy. And he’s totally serious.
There’s nothing wrong with the performances here. Streep is characteristically on point as a scattered menopausal reporter who sees ruinous parallels between the new mission and the Vietnam War; Cruise, for once, puts his hollow charm and empty conviction to good use as a young senator paving a road to the White House through the mountains of Afghanistan; Redford exudes genuine warmth and wisdom as the Slayer of Slackerdom; and I was particularly impressed by Derek Luke and Michael Peña: they tap deep vein of tenderness as best buds—bros, you might say—with an unusual commitment to public service.
The main fault of the film is that the ethics and morals of its universe feel pre-chewed. As director Redford said repeatedly during a recent screening in Berkeley, he wanted to make a film that challenges audiences to think, that paints the moral dilemmas facing the American citizenry in shades of gray. But the film is startlingly black and white. The audience, for the most part, is never asked to discern right from wrong. We are told, as the characters are told, This is what’s right and noble and this is what’s wrong and dastardly so go ahead and make the wrong choice if you want but we already told you what the right choice is so the only reason you’d choose otherwise is because you’re a coward and God help us all when we’re dancing in unison under a mural of Kim Jong Il.
The film commits a deeper sin by portraying Afghan fighters as hooded figures scampering facelessly in the distance à la those little Sand People from Star Wars. You know. The ones with the glowing red eyes who capture R2D2 and C3PO in the desert?
Come on. Isn’t that the kind of xenophobia that sold us this hot mess of a war to begin with?
But truth be told, I feel bad even criticizing this movie. Yeah it’s totally preachy, yeah it takes itself way too seriously, and yeah at least one of its plots feels too much like martyrdom porn. But overall I’m glad this movie was made, and if you’re wondering if you should spend the ten bucks to see it, I say sure, if you have ten bucks to spare, absolutely. Because in spite of the clunky package, the film’s message really is a good one. And how many products out of Hollywood can you say that about?