As I watched “Lions for Lambs”, the new film directed by Robert Redford, starring Redford as a college professor, Meryl Streep as a journalist in Washington and Tom Cruise as a Senator, I felt as though I was sitting in a college lecture class, listening to many of the same topics we discussed when I was in school. And that was almost twenty years ago.
The strange thing is, as much as I agree with the politics of this film, I was bored out of my skull.
A little more than two thirds of the film involves actors talking with one another, discussing politics, ideology, and the like. But this is a film. It isn’t a play. A film should not be lecturing us, it should tell a story about characters that move us to the point of action. There is an attempt to do this, but it doesn’t involve any of the three stars, so it seems to be been given short shrift, it almost seems like an after thought added to give the film a little action.
Janine Roth (Streep), a journalist well respected in Washington circles, rushes to the office of Senator Jasper Irving (Cruise). Irving has asked Roth to meet so he can tell her about a new offensive they are spearheading in Afghanistan. She is surprised to find he has set aside a full hour for their meeting and proceeds to get the facts about this new operation. During the course of their conversation, she peppers him with questions about the status of the war, the decisions made, what we did wrong, etc. At approximately the same time in California, Professor Malley (Redford) meets with one of his promising students, Todd Hayes (Andrew Garfield). Todd hasn’t been attending class and Malley wants to know why;. They begin to talk about taking a stand, making a difference, etc. When Malley realizes he isn’t getting through, he tells him about the last two students who ‘gave me any hope’. Through flashbacks, we see how Ernest Rodrigues (Michael Pena, “Crash”) and Arian Finch (Derek Luke, “Catch A Fire”, “Antwone Fisher”) once excited the professor by challenging him then made the decision to enlist in the Army soon after 9/11. The story then flashes to present day again and we see these same two soldiers leading the new offensive into Afghanistan.
I think it is necessary for us to discuss the same things these characters discuss, but because we are basically watching them talk for approximately 75 of the 90 minute running time of the film, there is little or no time for character development, for characters to bring us into the story, to make us care.
Streep comes closest with her portrayal of Janine Roth. As she and Senator Irving (Cruise channeling the character he played in “A Few Good Men”) sit and talk, Roth is barely able to hide her disbelief for the Senator’s new plan and his reasons behind it. She doesn’t believe him and tries to get to the bottom of the matter. Irving, initially gung ho to talk with her, he set up the meeting after all, becomes more and more reluctant when he realizes she isn’t falling into lock step behind him. She returns to her office and talks to her boss, trying to get him to not air the story, to not validate it and give the public a chance to accept it.
The Redford lecture is more difficult to handle because it involves flashbacks, which lead to more lectures and discussions. This story only makes its point at the very end, when Todd returns to his dorm and finally realizes how ineffectual his age group is, only because they aren’t bothering to take a stand or to make their voice heard.
The actual scenes involving the offensive in Afghanistan are interesting, but brief. And even these devolve into the two main characters talking as they await rescue.
It is interesting that we have had many films in last three months telling stories about different aspects of our current involvement in the war in Afghanistan and Iraq. Last month’s “Rendition”, also featuring Meryl Streep, was more effective. It told a fictionalized story, depicting the problem with a policy we have called ‘rendition’. Because the film had characters, it was easier to become involved in the story. The problem with “Rendition” is there are too many characters and we never have a lead character we can empathize with, someone who can lead us to action. “Lambs” also fails to incite action because we are basically watching people discuss things we can hear in the news, or read in the paper, or see Jon Stewart make fun of in his Comedy Central program.
I have no problem with the viewpoint presented in the film, and welcome having discussions with others, but why should we pay to listen to others talk? Why not release the film and let people in for free? That might kick start some discussions.
But, of course, that’s a pipedream. If the studio released the film, how would they make any money on the film? I mean, they never make any money on their films anyway, right? The biggest blockbuster can still be considered unprofitable. Let’s have a discussion about this…