Redford’s Lions for Lambs goes out with a whimper

by Glen Baity

Many films try and fail, but few do so more spectacularly than those that are meant to be About Everything.

For proof, look no further than the Robert Redford-directed Lions for Lambs, a heady parable for the Bush years that views like a Cliffs Notes version of our modern, broken political discourse. The story jumps between three related segments: In the first, a military operation in Afghanistan goes awry, stranding two badly-hurt Marines (Michael Peña and Derek Luke) in a blizzard while Taliban fighters close in; in the second, a Washington reporter (Meryl Streep) discusses the military operation in a heated conversation with hawkish Sen. Jasper Irving (Tom Cruise); in the third and final segment, a kindly political science professor (Redford) tries to stem the onset of apathy in one of his prize students (Andrew Garfield) by telling him about two of his former pupils who joined the military and are presently on the front lines of the War on Terror.

This construction is designed for maximum audience manipulation, and Redford lays it on thick. Your heartstrings will be tugged, but your intellect won’t be challenged, at least not to the degree Redford intends.

That’s because there isn’t a moment of Lions for Lambs that is actually about the film’s characters, who are there for representational purposes only. This becomes quite clear early on: The two soldiers in peril are all soldiers in the field. The overeducated, underwhelming college student in Redford’s office represents the kid’s entire spoiled, disconnected generation. Likewise, Streep isn’t just a reporter, she’s the entire news media, and Tom Cruise isn’t just some twerp with a flag pin, he’s every politician who ever rhetorically tap-danced around a straight answer on Meet the Press.

The problem with all this should be obvious: if none of these characters are real, they don’t really mean anything to the film, and they don’t mean anything to the audience. And if they do nothing but represent political or social philosophies, they had better bring something fresh to the argument.

And they don’t. Not at all.

The performances are caked with pathos and roundly irritating. Simply put, these are caricatures of people one might find described on any number of cable news roundtables – the stand-offish reporter who flinches at having her patriotism questioned, the rumpled, liberal “California university” professor (yes, the film actually sets Redford’s segment at an unnamed college, though it is somehow important that we know it’s in California), the spoiled rich kid with the “eff the world” attitude. Do these people actually exist in such quantities that they and they alone represent the whole of America? Maybe I need to go to more cocktail parties.

Lions for Lambs fancies itself a wake-up call, and it’s hard to assail that intention. The message is clear and difficult to argue with: Yes, Americans by and large should be more engaged in their government, and know more about what is happening in our name abroad. People shouldn’t give themselves over to complacency and nihilism, or become hopelessly cynical at a young age, or confuse cynicism with a healthy sense of skepticism. The film would make stellar viewing in a 10th-grade civics class.

And that’s the thing, really: If you’re plugged in enough to current events to have thought about these things, you’ve heard it all already. This is a film that appeals to people who likely won’t need to hear its message (briefly: Spend less time obsessing about pop star marriages and more time learning the difference between Shia and Sunni). Anyone who could stand to benefit will probably steer clear.

The film strives for relevancy, and it certainly is as about as current as they come, but it adds nothing to the cultural and political dialogue. Lions for Lambs simply chronicles and catalogues every talking point you’ve heard in the six years since 9-11 and contains them neatly in a 90-minute film. If you were putting together a time capsule and wanted to find a piece of art to describe American political life in 2007, you could do a lot worse than Lions for Lambs. As a piece of thought-provoking commentary, however, it’s a resounding failure, and will grate on the nerves of anyone who gravitates toward any kind of politically substantive conversation.

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