Based on a series of rather tepid reviews from virtually every major critic, I went fairly light on copy depth for Robert Redford’s new film Lions for Lambs. The film has been described by a myriad of respected film reviewers as muddy, weak, stultifying, directionless, filled with didactic talkativeness and a liberal rant in the form of a glib Politics for Dummies. I plowed through most of the 173 external reviews listed on IMDB and couldn’t find more than a handful of positive reviews. Part of the motivation for this exercise was to try and find someone else who saw the same movie I did, but I didn’t have much luck. The most common complaint related to the perception that the film presented its case too simplistically and without an appropriate level of detail. One reviewer found that the arguments divided too neatly across left and right, leaving the subtleties that cut across the political spectrum unacknowledged. There may be truth to that argument.
While the film leaves little doubt as to Redford’s political leanings and perhaps the dialogue and message is a little too obvious, I couldn’t help feeling that the discourse presented here isn’t the very kind of discussion that needs to take place right now. This is a film that poses questions that don’t have clear and obvious answers and I found it thought provoking and oddly hopeful. I also think it’s a damn fine film and if that makes me the odd man out, then so be it.
On to the plot. Three interconnected stories are used to explore the political and social context of the American “war on terror” in Afghanistan and Iraq. The first (and I thought most interesting) involves a professor meeting with a very bright student who has drifted towards apathy and cynicism. Redford explores the difficulties of engaging a generation mired in narcissism that have disconnected from the world around them. The act of imparting wisdom from one generation to another seems to have passed us by and I found this exchange between teacher and student compelling and worthy. The second thread involves a young Republican Congressman (played with great charisma by Tom Cruise) discussing a new military strategy with a seasoned TV report (Meryl Streep). This segment serves to expose corporate media culpability and the dangers of a nation being swept along by the convictions and single-mindedness of its leadership. The third (and weakest) segment is the extension of this military strategy to field operations as seen through the eyes of two young idealists who have enlisted in the U.S. Special Forces.
Taken together, the strength of Lions for Lambs is how it approaches the collapse of American idealism and the colossal failure of its recent politics and policies from several different angles. It doesn’t provide pat answers because there really aren’t any. I may have completely missed the boat here, but I really thought this was an engaging and thoughtful work. I’d love to hear some comments about this one.