Robert Redford, Meryl Streep, Tom Cruise and Michael Peña are the kind of names that can virtually carry a film on their individual merits alone, so seeing them come together in the same series of celluloid would seem to signal a cinematic tour de force – or at least a fairly entertaining movie. Unfortunately, “Lions for Lambs” is a glaring reminder that it takes more than a renowned actor – or three – to make a movie great. Not only is the film a muddled and inchoate mess, but its preachy style is so patronizing that the film is more off-putting than entertaining.
In fact, director Robert Redford has managed to take a killer cast and a scintillating subject, and create the kind of one-dimensional propaganda piece that is best left to Fox Faith and its ilk, although at least those movies tend to have a clear viewpoint. “Lions for Lambs,” on the other hand, seems so hell-bent on attacking everyone from apathetic youth to opportunistic politicians, that it seems to forget to find any sort of coherent conclusion before it ends – other than the ambiguously ridiculous idea of “raising awareness” about the current state of our war-torn world.
The movie centers on three distinct sets of characters, whose lives intertwine for a few hours on one proverbially fateful day. While Sen. Jasper Irving, played with characteristically pompous charisma by Tom Cruise, lays out the details of a new military plan for Afghanistan to cynical reporter Janine Roth (Meryl Streep), Dr. Malley (Robert Redford) meets with apathetic student Todd Hayes (Andrew Garfield) in his office at an unidentified California university. As Irving explains the military’s plans to set up small offensive units in the snowy Afghan mountains, Malley tells Hayes about Ernest (Michael Peña) and Arian (Derek Luke), the only two students before him who gave the aging professor hope for the future. Lo and behold, Earnest and Arian happen to be on the front lines of the new Afghanistan offensive, and when their plane is shot down over said snowy mountains, the subsequent story of their face-off against Taliban fighters gets interspersed with the scenes between Jasper and Roth and Malley and Hayes.
If the plot sounds convoluted, that’s because it is. Although “Lions For Lambs” is not lacking in courage – it tackles a timely topic that too many contemporary filmmakers seem to be afraid to face head on – it is lacking in cohesion. The movie’s timeline is loose at best, and linear only if you follow each individual story as a separate and distinct whole. And, although the movie starts off as an engaging political thriller of sorts, it quickly gets bogged down by what seems to be a plot made up entirely of pontification. In the end, the movie is all talk and almost no action.
What little action the film does provide comes largely from the scenes in Afghanistan, as the enduringly earnest – pun intended – Michael Peña plays out a dramatic battlefield scene that could have come straight out of pretty much every war movie ever made, even down to the ridiculously stylized cinematography. Ultimately, the confrontation between the soldiers and the Taliban plays out in such a cliché way, that it’s almost impossible to take it seriously enough to be engaged by it.
In fact, that seems to be the film’s main problem. Despite the palpable power of seeing a movie that says so many things intelligent people have been thinking about Bush’s war strategy for years, it’s almost impossible to get involved in the film on any level other than the initial enjoyment you gets from hearing your opinions validated by Meryl Streep in a major motion picture. Not to mention the fact that, for all its boldness, the film ends up saying the same things we as a society already knew and adding almost nothing new to the discussion.
Ultimately, with its stilted dialogue and one-dimensionally stereotypical characters – the prototypical college student is too busy being president of his fraternity and playing Madden to make it to class, and the cynical female reporter spends almost as much time complaining about her menopausal hot flashes as she does discussing the relative merits of the military’s plan – the movie is about as entertaining as a long lecture.
Now, not every movie is made for entertainment value, and that’s completely fine. But, since the film doesn’t come to any conclusive point, it ends up seeming more like a cinematic scolding than an important political piece. And who, except the most masochistic of moviegoers, wants to pay good money for a spirited scolding?