Eugene Weekly : Movies : 11.15.07


Back Talk
A lecture in the war on terror

LIONS FOR LAMBS: Directed by Robert Redford. Written by Matthew Michael Carnahan. Cinematography, Philippe Rousselot. Music, Mark Isham. Starring Robert Redford, Meryl Streep and Tom Cruise. United Artists, 2007. R. 88 minutes.

Tom Cruise as Jasper Irving in Lions for Lambs

Milan Kundera once wrote of George Orwell that his novels, in particular 1984, “could have been said just as well (or even much better) in an essay.” I feel that way about Robert Redford after watching his Lions for Lambs. From the title, with its cry of helplessness, to the end credits, in which citizen-silhouettes fade to black, the film feels like a lecture from a man who’s read too many back issues of The Nation — so many, in fact, that he’s forgotten how to tell a story. I respect Robert Redford, but I only accept lectures from professors, parents and romantic partners, which by and large aren’t people I look to for art. Redford is a veteran storyteller, but his take on totalitarianism makes a bad situation worse, resorting to the same reductionist thinking that characterizes the pro-war establishment.

Lions for Lambs quickly establishes three narrative fronts in which, over the course of the same hour, a series of crucial events take place. In Washington, D.C., Senator Jasper Irving (Tom Cruise) gives a rare private interview to Janine Roth (Meryl Streep), a jaded but intelligent reporter with enough crust to keep Irving from picking her apart. From behind his desk, Irving describes a new strategy in Afghanistan, one which involves sending American troops into hostile territory. “When?” asks Janine, incredulous. “Ten minutes ago,” Irving replies. As they debate foreign policy, a helicopter carries Marines through a snowstorm above Afghanistan. This storyline should be the strength of the film — you can’t really lecture an audience above the whup whup whup of the chopper blades — but sure enough, overt references to “rushing” into action give us the clear sense that weather is the least of their troubles. Aboard the helicopter are two former students of Dr. Stephen Malley (Redford), a man who, from the comfort of his office at USC, is at this very moment trying to convince a disillusioned student that political science can change the world.

Redford’s seventh film, and his first since The Legend of Bagger Vance (2000), Lions for Lambs is a movie that wants to make you think, but instead it does the thinking for you. Redford abandons the adage “Show, don’t tell” in favor of an extended but bogus Q & A format which, even though he’s almost always right, comes off as propaganda. In Redford’s case, again quoting Kundera’s view of Orwell, “the thinking is certainly lucid and correct … but the situations and characters are flat as a poster.” There are two outstanding performances here — one being Cruise’s hair-trigger take on John Edwards, a perversion that’s all phony sincerity and toothy smiles, the other being Streep’s twitchy grande dame reporter — but Lions for Lambs is so easy, so obvious in its politics, it should have been an essay. It certainly isn’t art. The best that can be said of it is that at 88 minutes, it’s mercifully short.

Lions for Lambs is now playing at Cinemark and VRC Stadium 15.