© 2007 Ray Wong
Six years after 9/11, a barrage of films on the war on terror have finally emerged and just in time for the award season. First we had The Valley of Elah, The Kingdom, and Rendition. Now producer-director Robert Redford brings us Lions for Lambs, perhaps a film most direct and philosophical in being critical of the current administration and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The story follows three separate but remotely linked threads that happen simultaneously within an hour, at different places in the world. In Washington D.C., veteran reporter Janine Roth (Meryl Streep) is granted an exclusive interview with Senator Jasper Irving (Tom Cruise). She has no idea what the Senator wants from her. In fact, Irving reveals to Janine that a new military strategy has been deployed as they speak: small special units are sent to capture a strategic high ground in the Afghanistan mountains. Irving wants Janine to write a feature on this news, promising this new strategy will finally win the war. Janine, however, is more than skeptical.
Meanwhile at UC Berkeley, CA, Professor Stephen Malley (Robert Redford) summons student Todd Hayes (Andrew Garfield) into his office. Malley regards Todd as one of those students who have great potentials, but are slacking off because they stop caring. Malley tries to knock some senses to Todd by relaying the story of two juniors, Ernest Rodriguez (Michael Peña) and Arian Finch (Derek Luke), who postponed their education and joined the military because they cared and wanted to do something.
And in Afghanistan, the special unit operation fails when their chopper is hit by the resistance. Rodriguez falls out and Arian follows. Waiting for rescue, the men face the approaching guerrilla force with severe injuries, no shelter, and limited ammunition. Their only hope is for the military to find them before the enemy does.
The three leads are all good actors. Meryl Streep (Rendition) plays the frumpy reporter with earnestness. That's a nice departure from the shrewd roles she has played recently (The Devil Wears Prada, Rendition, The Manchurian Candidate). Tom Cruise (Mission: Impossible III) is slick, smart, and aggressive as the Senator with an ambition. And Robert Redford (The Clearing) is focused as the liberal professor. The problem, however, is that these characters are all talking-heads. There isn't much depth or story about them to make us care about them, one way or another.
In contrast, Michael Peña (Shooter) and Derek Luke (Glory Road) are excellent playing the naive but purposeful duo of best friends/comrades. Their conviction and friendship seem genuine and that adds certain authenticity to the story. Andrew Garfield (Boy A) is the weakest link in the cast -- perhaps his smart-aleck character is underwritten, but he just comes across as smarmy, rude, and annoying. Maybe I'm showing my age, but I don't know anyone who speaks to their professors that way.
The screenplay by Matthew Michael Carnahan (The Kingdom) is marketed as a drama-thriller. But there really isn't much drama or thrills in the story. Except for the military scenes involving Michael Peña and Derek Luke, the rest of the film is just talk. Granted, the dialogue seems intelligent and confrontational, and it aims at provoking thoughts. Still, without an actionable plot and resolutions, the story falls flat. Even the military scenes feel manufactured and "been there, done that" only to make a point.
To his credit, Robert Redford keeps the three threads focused and the characters at center stage. Unfortunately, there is just not enough dramatic tension to carry the film through. Two-thirds of the film is more philosophical musing than plot. This may have worked as a play, as the dialogue is one of its strengths. However, as a film, the story doesn't really go anywhere and it feels manipulative.
There's a whole lot of preaching, even for a message movie, and moralizing. It seems very clear that Redford and the filmmakers have already made up their minds and they're trying very hard to make the audiences see their point of view. There's nothing wrong with that: we artists all have our particular points of view. Still, the characterizations from the slick Republican senator to the smarmy undergrad all manipulate the audiences into agreeing with that point of view, leaving no room for real debates. While relevant, the film aims at being a roaring lion, but ends up being a quiet lamb.
Stars: Robert Redford, Meryl Streep, Tom Cruise, Michael Peña, Andrew Garfield, Peter Berg, Kevin Dunn, Derek Luke
Director: Robert Redford
Writer: Matthew Michael Carnahan
Distributor: United Artists
MPAA Rating: R for war violence and language
Running Time: 88 Minutes
Script – 6
Performance – 7
Direction – 6
Cinematography – 7
Editing – 6
Production – 7
Total – 6.3 out of 10