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Lions for Lambs

Too Much Talk, Not Enough Action

Didactic, polemical, manipulative, yet sporadically engaging, Lions for Lambs is the latest, but far from the last, film to come out of Hollywood this fall to address the United States’ post-9/11 foreign policy. Overly earnest as only a Robert Redford (The Horse Whisperer, A River Runs Through It, Ordinary People) directed film can be, Lions for Lambs certainly had potential, but with a screenplay by Matthew Michael Carnahan (The Kingdom) that tries to do too much, most of it via characters sitting around and talking, it ends up accomplishing far less than it should or could have, and ultimately wastes the performances of an all-star cast.

Lions for Lambs is a well-intentioned, if misguided effort, to convince moviegoers that social and political activism is the answer to the seemingly intractable problems the United States has caused in the Middle East. Like the recent Rendition, this film weaves three seemingly disparate storylines. In one, Janine Roth (Meryl Streep), a television reporter, interviews Senator Jasper Irving (Tom Cruise), about a new military plan to "win" the war in Afghanistan. In another, two Army Rangers, Ernest Rodriguez (Michael Peña) and Arian Finch (Derek Luke), college friends who decided to enlist together, are stranded in the high mountains of Afghanistan after the first mission to implement Irving's plan goes awry. In the third, a college professor, Professor Stephen Malley (Robert Redford) lectures one of his students, Todd Hayes (Andrew Garfield), about politics, cynicism, and political and social engagement.

Unfortunately, like Rendition, Lions for Lambs tries too hard and ultimately ends up accomplishing far less than Redford or Carnahan hoped to achieve. Not surprisingly, the Malley-Hayes storyline is filled with sermonizing, pontificating, and, in the end, an uninspired call to social activism, involvement in the political process, and overall engagement. Unfortunately, a Hollywood film isn't likely to convince anyone, least of all 20-somethings, to give up their comfortable lifestyles for social or political activism.

The Irving-Roth storyline fares better, due in no small part, to impressive performances by Meryl Streep as a "liberal" reporter who, like most in the mainstream media, compromised herself by accepting the current administration's line about Iraq and weapons of mass destruction. Likewise with Tom Cruise, essaying a role that fits his hard-charging, driven persona almost perfectly.

It's the Rodriguez-Finch storyline, however, that ends up being the most gripping of the three due to strongly written characters, convincing performances by Michael Peña and Derek Luke, and a scenario unhindered by the political posturing or sermonizing that bring the other storylines down. There's nothing new in the "behind-enemy-lines" scenario, but it offers a welcome break from the other two, dialogue-driven, storylines that can be difficult to follow for the better part of Lion for Lambs' nearly two hour running. Rodriguez and Finch have far more at stake, i.e. their lives, than any of the other characters that can and do return to their comfortable middle-class or upper-middle class lives with just a flutter of guilt on their consciences for their actions or non-action.

Whatever its dramatic weaknesses, at least Lions for Lambs doesn't shy away from the real-world implications of the subject matter. Six years after 9/11, the United States is still mired in two expensive wars or, more accurately, two occupations, one in Afghanistan and the other in Iraq. Redford and Carnahan sidestep Iraq, at least as much as they can, by focusing almost exclusively on Afghanistan. Irving's new plan for victory says little about Iraq, but instead focuses on achieving a "winnable" scenario in the so-called "War on Terror" that, if effective, will sway public opinion and recalcitrant politicians back toward supporting our continued presence in the Middle East.

As depicted here, Irving's plan is a desperate one, a plan meant partly as a PR stunt to bolster flagging support for the Republican Party brand and Irving's presidential ambitions. Sound familiar?

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars