Lions for Lambs

Robert Redford is one of the most distinguished individuals in Hollywood today:  his decades-spanning film acting career includes such classic titles as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, All The President’s Men, and Out of Africa.  As a director he has produced indelible works like Ordinary People, A River Runs Through It, and The Horse Whisperer.  He even played an instrumental role in founding Sundance Film Festival the annual indie-movie showcase named after his role in Butch Cassidy.  Lions for Lambs, his most recent project which directed and in which he starred, is an intriguing film that explores many facets of the War on Terror as seen through roughly intertwining vignettes involving a Republican senator and a liberal interviewer, a college professor and his young mush-minded pupil, and two students-turned-soldiers who are on the front lines of a new attack strategy masterminded by the senator.  While the acting and direction are top-notch, perhaps the film’s most impressive quality is its restraint, as Redford deeply explores many sides of a complicated issue instead of using the hour and twenty minute running time to grind a particular political axe.  It’s classic Robert Redford:  classy.

When this movie came out I was surprised at how little attention it got from the general public.  Having watched it this week, though, I think I can understand why:  Lions for Lambs is not exactly entertaining per se, and it’s also a tricky premise to sell to an audience (especially an audience that has catapulted drivel like Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen into the box office stratosphere) because of the multi-faceted approach to telling its story.  The action unfolds in real time as senator Jasper Irving, played by Tom Cruise who looks and acts like the all-growed-up version of his Daniel Kaffe character in A Few Good Men, is being interviewed by journalist Janine Roth, played by Meryl Streep.  She gets him to spill the beans about a new strategy for finally winning the War –a plan that is being put into action in Afghanistan as they speak, and involves two young soldiers who get separated from the rest of their platoon.  The two soldiers just happen to be former students of professor Stephen Malley–Robert Redford in a role that feels as natural as any he has ever played, if a bit more passionate at times.  Malley is, at the same time this is all going on, trying to knock some real-world sense into one of his students (young actor Andrew Garfield, channeling a healthy dose of Judd Nelson’s character from The Breakfast Club), using his former students as examples of true courage and conviction, even though he personally disagrees with their decision to join the military.

The movie isn’t so much a story as it is an exploration of a political topic.  And yet, despite the intensely political nature of the film, it never gets preachy.  The characters come across as passionate but not informed and far from their stereotypical raving counterparts in so many movies today.  There are no easy answers to the solution to the War, and the viewpoints expressed by the various characters are thoughtful and reasonable as opposed to ideological diatribes.  Several express regret over past mistakes, and the media at large is even taken to task for its role in ramping up the hype for the War years ago.  However, all this serves as an interesting essay or PBS debate, but it does not serve to make the most engaging movie.  For all that I appreciate about Lions for Lambs, it does boil down to little more than 80 minutes of dialog, and the disconnected nature of the plot keeps it from being in the same league as movies like Frost/Nixon.  There is no main character to follow, no central storyline other than the peril of the two stranded soldiers, and the conflict rests mainly in the minds of the audience rather than the characters.

But it’s a fine film overall, especially for people who are looking for a more thoughtful approach to politics in their movies.

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