MOVIE REVIEW- Everybody talks: But what's everybody doing about war?
Would you rather have "a high-minded debate about war and policy" or watch movie megastars do it?
The makers of Lions for Lambs are betting you'll choose the latter, but that doesn't make them entirely happy. One of the points of the movie is that most Americans believe, or at least accept, what the President says because they're lazy, ignorant, gullible and apathetic.
Yes, it's a Bush-bashing movie, but one composed primarily of intelligent discourse. The only people who raise their voices are soldiers in combat.
Two things make Lions for Lambs stand out from the pack. It has three big stars in an age when more than one is usually cost-prohibitive, and it lasts only an hour and a half in a season when all the (self-)important movies are inflated to two and a half or more.
Three related situations unfold roughly in real time. Journalist Janine Roth (Meryl Streep) is granted a private interview with charismatic Sen. Jasper Irving (Tom Cruise), whom she referred to in Time as "the future of the Republican Party." He knows she opposes his conservative politics, which is why he thinks a good word from her will carry more weight than preaching to the choir on Fox News. He chooses her to announce a new strategy in Afghanistan of having small Special Forces units secure and hold key positions on high ground.
In California a university professor, Dr. Stephen Malley (Robert Redford) is meeting with a student, Todd Hayes (Andrew Garfield), who showed a lot of promise at first but has virtually dropped out of his class. Malley hopes to motivate the youth and tells him about "the last two kids I had that gave me hope," Arian Finch (Derek Luke) and Ernest Rodriguez (Michael Peña), who ignored his advice and joined the army.
Irving tells Roth the new plan was implemented "10 minutes ago," when the first helicopter took off. He doesn't know that helicopter was fired on by snipers in the mountains of Afghanistan and two men, Finch and Rodriguez, fell out. They're pinned down in the snow while their chopper makes a forced landing some distance away and their commander (Peter Berg) is trying to get a rescue craft to them.
The war scenes provide a break from the basic two-people-in-a-room scenarios, but this is still a talking picture meant to stimulate thought and discussion. Besides the obvious connections, the stories are occasionally cleverly joined. Todd rants about the things wrong with America today, including politicians who announce they're running for President by loudly declaring they're not running for President. Near the end of their interview, Janine asks the senator if he's running for President, and he loudly declares he isn't. Even better is a cut from Berg saying, "I'd like to talk to the motherf*cker who said this mountaintop was secure," to a shot of Sen. Irving smirking as he touts his strategy.
Cruise is ideally cast as a rising political star, much like Rob Lowe on Brothers & Sisters. He's slicker than Clinton and smarter than Bush, but his beliefs are aligned with the latter and he can express them intelligently. He puts his interviewer on the defensive by comparing the media to a windsock and accusing them of selling the American people on the war. He can also control the debate by asking, "Do you want to win the War on Terror?... the quintessential yes or no question of our time," which doesn't allow for questioning whether the War on Terror actually exists or what would constitute a win.
Roth gets in her own licks. When she asks about bringing the troops home and Irving moans, "How many times are you people going to ask the same question?" she responds with the obvious: "Until we get the answer."
The student-teacher debate hits the viewer more directly. Todd thinks the situation is hopeless and there's nothing he can do, so he'll just get rich and rise above it. The professor argues that that's the attitude that makes things hopeless, and even little things like volunteering to lick envelopes for a campaign are better than doing nothing.
With no heavy dramatics, Lions for Lambs won't win any acting awards. Redford, Streep, and Cruise are perfectly cast to do what they do best– reason, question and charm respectively– and do it without breaking a sweat. Newcomer Garfield must feel he hasn't been cast, he's been anointed, in a role that lets him play opposite Redford in lengthy dialogues. Poor Peña must have felt déjà vu after playing one of two trapped men in World Trade Center. This time he's lying in snow instead of rubble.
Redford directed, again making it look easy. The screenplay is by Matthew Michael Carnahan, the only major contributor with a shot at award recognition.
But Lions for Lambs isn't about winning awards or wars. It's not even so much about winning the hearts and minds of the American people, just engaging their hearts and minds. If all those who say they oppose the war vote for politicians with a plan to end our involvement in it, the troops will come home and the next President will be a Democrat. Michael Moore couldn't do it with Fahrenheit 9/11, but he was swimming against the tide in 2004.