Just when you thought that Rendition had nailed this year’s award for most dramatically inert post-9/11 melodrama, along comes Lions for Lambs (United Artists/MGM), the Robert Redford-directed, Tom Cruise-executive-produced star vehicle that ought to have been called Slugs for Snails, so leisurely does it creep toward its predictably bombastic conclusion.
As you sit through the film’s 88 eternal minutes, you have to keep reminding yourself that Redford has been directing films, some of them pretty good, for nearly 30 years now. Yet Lions for Lambs appears to have been created by someone who’s never seen one of these newfangled contraptions called “movies,” or for that matter, witnessed that phenomenon known as “speech.” Everyone in the movie talks incessantly—essentially, the film is a record of three simultaneous conversations taking place across the globe—but not a line of dialogue sounds like something that anyone has ever actually said. After a while, the script’s denatured quality takes on a fascination of its own: Just how does this earnest, well-intentioned movie, crammed to the rafters with talent, manage to feel so thoroughly phony?
In static yammerfest No. 1, Sen. Jasper Irving (Tom Cruise) offers TV journalist Janine Roth (Meryl Streep) an “exclusive” interview that’s a barely disguised press release about the administration’s latest military push in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, at an unnamed California university, idealistic history professor Stephen Malley (Redford) chews out bright but underachieving student Todd (Andrew Garfield) by telling him the story of two ex-students from the inner city who enlisted for military service in a burst of patriotic fervor. Finally, in a helicopter somewhere over Afghanistan, we meet those two students, Eric Rodriguez and Arian Finch (Michael Peña and Derek Luke). After the ill-conceived mission goes wrong, they wind up half-buried in the snow on a mountainside, waiting for rescue as the Taliban closes in.
The net effect for the viewer is that of being trapped in an airless room, then escaping it to find yourself in another, and yet another. You’d think at least the boots-on-the-ground subplot would provide some forward motion, but each time we’re released from the senator’s chambers or the professor’s book-lined office to rejoin the two soldiers, damned if they’re not still waist-deep in snow, where they’ll remain, sharing pep talks and flashbacks, for the majority of the film.
Meryl Streep tries to bring her “A” game to the scenes with Cruise, throwing in speech tics and bits of business to give her character some heft. But both politician and journalist are such cutouts (he spouts about the axis of evil, she sighs disapprovingly and scribbles on her pad) that they might as well be debating on Meet the Press. Cruise gets one juicy moment that recalls Jack Nicholson’s iconic “You want me on that wall. You need me on that wall” speech in A Few Good Men. But he throws away the chance to embody the passion of the true believer; he never lets us forget that he’s only pretending to be Republican.
The screenwriter, Matthew Michael Carnahan, also wrote the recent The Kingdom, a crude revenge-on-the-terrorists fantasy that nonetheless reads like sophisticated policy analysis next to Lions for Lambs. (Both movies do end on similar notes, hinting unsubtly that the next generation will be doomed to repeat the violence of the last.) Redford keeps cutting away to clocks as the professor’s office hour, the senator’s interview, and the soldiers’ hour of peril chug toward their respective ends. The unintended consequence is that you find yourself trying to match the real-time proceedings onscreen with the real time ticking away on your watch, and counting the seconds till you can go home.
Lions for Lambs will no doubt be ridiculed for its pie-in-the-sky leftism, but the movie’s view of American politics is muddled and, at times, cynical. Streep’s character stands in for “the media,” apparently an undifferentiated mass of cowardly suckups churning out glowing profiles of the power elite. Malley regrets his former students’ decision to enlist, but his dewy-eyed praise of their courage, along with his vague exhortations to “get involved,” understandably inspire the frat-boy slacker to consider signing up himself. And when Todd asks his teacher why he should spend his life trying to make the world better when it probably won’t make a difference, Malley’s response is a wan, “At least you can say you did something.” Now there’s a rallying cry! Have we really sunk so far into post-Reagan anomie and liberal self-loathing that even a college professor played by Robert Redford isn’t allowed a moment of good old-fashioned hope?