Movie Review: Lions for Lambs
Rating: R (some war violence, language)
Length: 92 minutes
Release Date: November 9, 2007
Directed by: Robert Redford
Stars: 3 out of 5
"Lions for Lambs" is a hybrid film that mixes the war genre with intense scenes that are heavy on dialogue with little or no action. There are two dialogue storylines and one war storyline that are expertly spliced by director Robert Redford, which may lead to comparisons to a similarly scripted film, "Syriana." The biggest difference is that "Syriana" veers into confusing territory, whereas "Lions for Lambs" keeps the story on track.
The war part of the film is set in the mountains of Afghanistan, where Ernest Rodriguez (Michael Pena) and Arian Finch (Derek Luke) are injured soldiers fighting for their life against the Taliban. It is nighttime, so they know that no rescue is likely coming until morning, which forces them to try and stay warm in the increasingly blustery snow that has begun to fall. They got separated from their group because of a new plan of attack that was called for by Senator Jasper Irving (Tom Cruise), a Republican who wears his hawkish war views like a badge of honor.
As Rodriguez and Finch fight for their lives, their former professor, Stephen Malley (Redford), is having a very interesting argument with his current student Todd Hayes (Andrew Garfield). Malley is something of an eternal optimist, although he opposed the war and feels the country is not on the right track. He is trying to talk Hayes into stopping his current slide into cynicism in hopes that it will restore not only his optimistic worldview but also his lagging grades.
Meanwhile, the third storyline features Irving giving a long, detailed interview with Janine Roth (Meryl Streep), a television reporter who wants a complete profile of Irving and some answers about why the United States went to war. Like most politicians, Irving is chock full of talking points and bloated slogans that don't really give true or direct answers to anything asked of him. The growing frustration is evident on Roth's face, a testament to how much Streep can do with just the expressions on her face.
The three stories may seem a little disparate on the surface, but they are not. Through careful storytelling, scriptwriter Matthew Michael Carnahan ("The Kingdom") manages to show the audience just how closely intertwined the three storylines really are. Redford does an admirable job of making the transition to each story seamless so that it is not distracting at all. In fact, the scenes in Afghanistan are perfectly placed to break up the two talky storylines, which helps break up what could have become monotonous banter. Sandwiched between the dialogue, the fast pace of the war sequences seem that much more vivid.
As you might expect from such a top-notch cast, the performances are stellar from top to bottom. Streep seems to effortlessly give her performance as a jaded journalist who can't seem to get a straight answer from anyone. Her performance really shines when her character realizes that Irving only agreed to the interview in order to try and sell his plan for more war to the American people. Her interactions with Cruise, who also gives a fine performance, are quietly tense. Cruise makes the audience believe that Irving truly believes everything he is saying, even though it doesn't fully make sense. He is a passionate man with some very lofty presidential ambitions, and that passion and ambition definitely come through in Cruise's performance.
Garfield also does well in his role, five whole years before he became an international name by becoming the newest incarnation of Peter Parker/Spider-Man. He was relatively unknown in 2007, when the film came out, but showed the promise that later led to a Golden Globe nomination for "The Social Network." This performance finds him knocking on the door to Hollywood, which has now been opened wide for him.
A film like "Lions for Lambs" is ambitious because it takes a very touchy subject, that of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and tries to make some sense of it. It can occasionally veer into preachy territory when Professor Malley lectures his unruly student. However, it does stop short of becoming too political and instead goes for more drama than politics. This ensures that no matter how liberal or conservative you are, you can still enjoy the film. This is a credit to Carnahan, who also deftly handled the issues of war and the Middle East in "The Kingdom." Perhaps he should keep writing on these sensitive subjects, since he is obviously so good at it.