Lions for Lambs (5/10)

Throughout this latest political outing from the usually reliable Robert Redford, his character is drinking from a Starbucks coffee cup. It’s an obviously empty cup. We never see any coffee, and at one point he refills it with coffee from a thermos, but the camera cuts away so it doesn’t have to show it. Canned slurping sounds emanage occasionally from the screen as he takes a drink, and he’s obviously holding it in a way so that it appears as if it would have coffee in it. “Lions for Lambs” is a lot like this coffee cup. An essentially empty vessel that the audience is supposed to believe contains the coffee of controversial ideas surrounding the war on terror, but in reality, is merely a bunch of canned sound bites that brings nothing new to the table. It’s brave filmmaking to basically shoot an entire movie in just under five rooms, but unfortunately this tactic doesn’t end up working too well.

Meryl Streep plays Janine Roth, a reporter who helped rocket Tom Cruise’s Jasper Irving to the top of Republican party fame years ago by publishing an article on him. To return the favor, he grants her an interview in which he reveals to her a new strategy for the war in Afghanistan. Robert Redford is Professor Stephen Malley, who teaches at a college “somewhere in California” and calls a student, Andrew Garfield as Todd Hayes, into his office for an early morning meeting filled with fake coffee and a warning to him that he has great potential and shouldn’t waste it. Meanwhile, over in Afghanistan, two soldiers, in a botched attempt to put Irving’s plan into action, get stranded on a plateau with Taliban members closing in on them over the course of the film. The movie bounces from the interview, to the professor’s office, to the two soldiers, sprinkling in some flashbacks that flesh out the army men’s backgrounds. It’s a format that could have worked, if the whole thing just didn’t feel so darn fake.

These characters live in a world where everybody talks as if they’re having revelations for the first time, when in fact the discussions that are happening are simply rehashed versions of debates that are going on all over the country right now. We don’t need a film to show us what we’re already discussing, and certainly not one where its characters are deluded individuals who are unseated at the slightest pithy comeback.

Nowhere in the film is this more apparent than between Roth and Irving. They spit out predictable dialogue and responses, and for a man of his supposed caliber, Irving is far too easily made uncomfortable when Roth points out obvious flaws with his newfound strategy. Irving will say something with utter conviction, then Roth will mutter something breezily, to which Irving will respond by blinking a couple of times, sweating, then swallowing and spitting out the party line. There’s nothing new going on here. Aside from this, the way Irving talks makes him sound like a carbon copy of George Bush, a none-too-subtle jab. Why make this so obvious? Why couldn’t Irving have been his own character instead of our President’s beliefs coalesced into human form? This is lazy writing if I’ve ever seen it.

The professor, Malley’s, discussion with his student does not feel as fake as Irving and Roth’s, but there is still a very clear sign of a script. These characters all say exactly the right thing at exactly the right time, and until the end, nobody really has any comebacks that permanently unsettle the other. They all just babble on for an hour and a half, and what’s even worse, these babblings are intercut with extremely boring shots of the two stranded soldiers lying bleeding in the snow waiting to be either caught or shot. They are given some backstory, fortunately, for the flashbacks are far more interesting than the present story, and it is actually them that keeps the movie from being a complete heavy-handed failure.

The story behind the two boys and why exactly they choose to go to war is a fascinating one, but it is almost ruined by the hammer-on-the-head delivery of the script. Every single one of the actors delivers their line with fierce belief in what they are saying, and if what they said wasn’t so obvious, it would have worked. Not only does the deliver itself fail to convey the full import of what these characters are saying, but the thing that they are saying themselves are too prominent in what is going on in the world right to have any real relevance, which is why the story of the soldiers should have been the plot line that ran the course of the whole thing. This story involves the responsibility that everyone holds to help make the country’s situation overseas better, and how these two men chose to take this responsibility full on by joining the military. And, in the last twenty minutes, as other characters realize the hand that they have had in this travesty, the movie really comes into its own, sacrificing the obvious for something that’s a little bit more deep than the hour and ten minutes that had come before. There’s some nice little irony woven into the script and though Roth’s and Irving’s self-revelations are handled a little clumsily, they will speak powerfully to many people.

The performances are unquestionably great, especially Tom Cruise’s passionate portrayal of the Republican senator. He hasn’t been in anything since last year’s Mission: Impossible: III, and he’s still as fantastic an actor as ever. Meryl Streep is given a character who, in the latter half of the film, seems thrown for a loop every five minutes. As a result, she spends a lot of that time looking confused and disoriented, which is unfortunate, because she’s such a great actress. Robert Redford plays Malley with his reliable collected exterior that hides an interior in a fair amount of turmoil.

Overall, “Lions for Lambs” is a disappointment – a sad mock-up that doesn’t bring anything really new or intelligent to the conversation of what we should do in Iraq and Afghanistan, one that is content to do some preaching and leave in a hurry (the film is only an hour and twenty-eight minutes long). Its worst mistake is writing a script that seems to think it’s giving us a whole bunch of new revelations, when, as already mentioned, these materials have been presented to us time and again. The clumsy delivery doesn’t help either, as the phony dialogue and contrived character interactions reek of a couple of writers in a room desperately trying to slap something together that could help convey their message. “How are we gonna do this?” “Oh, I know, let’s just have people sit and talk!” I suppose I could see why they went for this – the conversations among Irving, Roth, and Malley are a mirror to a lot of the conversations going on in the U.S. today, but simply a mirror does not a good movie make. For good filmmaking, you need something fresh and new delivered in a creative manner, and aside from the occasional glimmer of something more, “Lions for Lambs” remains little more than that empty coffee cup.

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One Response to “Lions for Lambs (5/10)”

  1. Wow!

    This is perhaps the reason why American Gangster grossed out Lions in the box office? At least for the week that passed.

    Cheers!

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