Just about any time a celebrity opens his or her mouth about something other than being a celebrity, they get ridiculed. Singers and actors who have the temerity to show an interest in activism are loudly advised to “stick to what they know” rather than try and foist their unwelcome opinions on audiences. Some, like “Lion for Lambs” director/star Robert Redford, have found a way to balance professional careers with philanthropy. Redford has a long history of involvement in environmental causes, as well as championing independent film, but his politics have rarely entered into his directorial or acting choices.
That’s no longer the case, for “Lions for Lambs” is a scalding indictment of both the arrogance of America’s current leadership and the apathy of its citizenry. Redford plays Stephen Malley, professor of political science at an unnamed California university. Malley’s meeting with one of his more promising students, Todd Hayes (Andrew Garfield), a child of privilege who’s nonetheless lost faith in the “pieces of s**t” who run the country and is using this disillusionment as an excuse to blow off his studies. In an attempt to impress upon the young man his responsibilities as a citizen, Malley relates the story of two other students who, while the product of poor upbringing, were both among the best in class. In a surprise (to Malley) attempt to stir their fellow students to greater civic action, they enlist in the Army.
The second perspective in the movie is that of these students, Ernest (Michael Peña) and Arian (Derek Luke). Both are stationed in Afghanistan and are part of a new military initiative designed to drop the hammer on Al Qaeda once and for all. I won’t go into the plan itself, because from a military perspective it’s one of the dumbest things I’ve ever heard, but the upshot is that Ernest and Arian end up stranded atop a mountain with enemy forces closing in.
The “new initiative” is the brainchild of Senator Jasper Irving (Tom Cruise), the GOP’s golden boy, who (in the film’s third POV) is granting veteran reporter Janine Roth (Meryl Streep) an exclusive interview. Irving takes the bold stance of admitting the government’s past mistakes and asks Roth to help him bring “the truth” to the public. Roth, in what has to be an unprecedented display of journalistic quid pro quo, comes clean on the media’s culpability in selling the invasion of Iraq, and – briefly – considers joining forces with Irving to pimp his plan.
“Lions for Lambs” is Robert Redford Peter Finch moment. Previously, he was content to let his off-screen activities speak for him, but he seems to have gotten so pissed off at the state of affairs in America he felt it necessary to produce, direct, and star in this Matthew “The Kingdom” Carnahan script. Like John Sayles before him, Redford has finally let his politics fully bleed over into finished product.
Fortunately for him, “Lions for Lambs” is a less ham-handed effort than Sayles’ “Silver City,” but it’s a near thing. Redford shines a pretty harsh light on the current college-age generation, lampooning their fascination with entertainment news and inability to put their money where their mouths are. Thing is, he could have done the same thing with my generation, or the Baby Boomers.
What put Redford over the edge is his loathing of the Bush Administration, and casting Cruise as the slippery Irving was a stroke of weird genius. It doesn’t matter that every argument Irving puts forward to bolster his cause is a straw man, or that references to his background working in military intelligence are obviously meant to imply a shadier past, because Cruise himself has become such a repellent figure in recent years, largely as a result of the same unhealthy fascination with celebrity Redford mocks, that he’s eminently believable as a manipulative bastard. Watching him harangue Roth is like sitting through that Matt Lauer interview all over again.
Redford is obviously sincere in his convictions, and his exhortations to take action show his heart is in the right place, but as with most polemics, the filmmaker gets his message across at the expense of the story. As a diatribe, “Lions for Lambs” is somewhat effective. As a movie, it’s decidedly less so.