By the time the credits rolled on Lions for Lambs, I sat there in the darkened theater as my fellow patrons made for the exits wondering if that's all there is. It felt incomplete and I was not engaged. I like going to the movies… no, I love going to the movies. That said, I do not go to the movies for a lecture. I made that mistake once with Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth (the information was good, but it was not a good "movie" and certainly not worthy of its Oscar win).
When I go to the movies I want to get caught up in the characters, their journey, their story, as well as the technique and visual flair used in telling the story. It's too bad I did not get that level of involvement with this. Lions for Lambs is 90 minutes of talking with little in the way of action or character development. The characters are there to fill the needs of the script rather than inhabiting this world, a conveyance for the thoughts of the writers rather than containing any semblance of organic growth. Still, it is not a complete loss; it is watchable although it is rather mediocre and incomplete.
Lions for Lambs is the latest of the recent spate of Iraq war-themed films unleashed by Hollywood upon an unsuspecting movie-going audience. No matter where you turn it seems as if a new one has arrived to add to your cinematic choices. It could also become the latest to be deemed a box office disappointment. By and large audiences are voting with their wallets and are giving these war movies a lukewarm reception. We live this war every day, be it in the papers, the evening news, or all the reports on the 24-hour news nets. Do we really need it on the big screen as well?
Something tells me that these films would be better received if they were disguised as something else, perhaps some science fiction or something more modern but a bit more obtuse. It's hard to ask people to pay to see a cinematic lecture on current world events when they may want to escape reality for a bit into an engrossing film. Then there are people like me who will see just about anything and blow this concept right out of the water.
Lions for Lambs plays out three stories running in parallel, nearly in real time save for a few flashbacks to help flesh them out. The centerpiece would be the verbal sparring between Tom Cruise, as presidential hopeful Senator Jaspar Erving, and Meryl Streep, as reporter Janine Roth. Their meeting is focused on the launch of a new strategy in Afghanistan that would turn the tide of the war and deliver an American victory. Jaspar is not backing down on his belief that this is the way of the future and will ensure a win. On the other side of the coin Roth is attempting to get some actual detail from Jaspar with regard to his conviction that this is the correct way to go.
On the other coast we are introduced to Professor Malley(Robert Redford) who is having an early morning meeting with a smart and promising student who has stopped caring, Todd Hayes (Andrew Garfield). They discuss the way government is working and the ways to incite change, the point being Malley's desire to give Hayes a little fire, get him involved with something, anything. Hayes represents most of us, bright, yet unmotivated and unwilling to try something under the belief that we would end up in the same place anyway.
The third story follows a pair of Malley's former students, a bright pair with the world at their fingertips who, as part of a class debate (seen in flashback) put their words to the test and enlist in the army. As the film begins, the duo, Ernest Rodriguez (Michael Pena) and Arian Finch (Derek Luke), are part of Jaspar's new initiative. They head into the snowy peaks as part of a small group charged with taking the high ground before the Taliban can move in. However, what is believed to be a safe zone is still very hot, and the two are left injured and exposed.
What did I get out of the movie? Well, the politicians got us in before we should have, not even considering if we should have, the media is at least as culpable for selling the war to the public, and it is the little people, the everyday Joes, who pay for it. Yes, if not for government and the media we would not be in this war, or at least not in the version we are living today.l
Lions for Lambs is an indictment of the government and the media, and shows how everybody pays for decisions that are made. We even get a bit of the blame placed on America in general as we have become too complacent to fight for anything. Pretty much everything in the film is a point that is believable, if arguable. The problem is that for a 90 minute film it is all talk. Seriously, this movie is all about the talk. Talk, talk, talk.
It starts off potentially involving as each of the players is intriguing in their own right, but I kept waiting for something big to happen. They just kept talking, and talking, and then the movie was over. So, without much going on beyond the talk, any interest is going to lie with the star power. To a degree it works. Cruise has the smarmy politician down, Streep is fine as the conflicted reporter, and Redford has a laid back charm as he tries to start a fire. Pena and Luke carry the heart of the movie and represent the only characters that I actually cared anything for.
Bottom line. I did not feel that this movie broke any new ground and did not succeed in telling us anything that we didn't already know. The resulting product amounts to a lecture. Did I like it? To an extent, I just wish that there was more to it. It survives on the strength of the stars and the conviction with which they bite into the roles.