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November 5, 2007

‘Lions for Lambs’: Super-Pretentious, Implausible and Really Bad


So now we have another movie, about the fifth of the fall season, aimed at “asking hard questions” and “bringing up crucial ideas” about what’s going on in the world. But “Lions for Lambs,” like “Syriana,” “The Kingdom” and “In the Valley of Elah” before it, fails almost completely, both as political commentary and as cinema.


The biggest problem with Robert Redford’s film is that it has not a single original idea in its head. Every single political argument it makes has already been made many other times by many other people. Every idea in the movie is either totally obvious or totally wrong.  


“Lions for Lambs” thinks the ideas it’s advancing are somehow daring, when in fact they’ve now not only been repeated ad nauseum by other people, but they’ve now been accepted as conventional wisdom by the majority of Americans. The movie is not only bad, but also totally unnecessary.


Directed by Robert Redford from a script by Matthew Michael Carnahan, the script advertises a quote by a German solider from World War II as its main idea: The troops are great, but the people commanding them are stupid, if not outright evil. The argument is a convenient dodge, which has the advantage of being almost undisputedly true.


Like most super-pretentious, Oscar-baiting films of recent years, Redford’s movie consists of three plot strands, which appear unconnected but later prove to be connected as the movie goes on. The problem, in “Lions for Lambs,” is that none of the stories seem to make a whole lot of sense within their separate contexts.


Redford plays a west coast college professor confronting an unmotivated student (Andrew Garfield), by telling him the story of two of his former students (Derek Luke and Michael Pena). In the second strand, at what we’re supposed to think is the same time, we see the two ex-students together, parachuting onto a mountaintop in Afghanistan. And in the third, a respected network news reporter (Meryl Streep) meets with a neocon-ish Republican senator (Tom Cruise) who appears to be the architect of that military strategy.


Now, it’s strange enough that a youngish senator – as opposed to, say, military personnel or someone in the White House – has conceived of a military strategy himself. But the biggest problem with the Cruise/Streep scenes is that here we have two world-class actors – nominated for 17 Academy Awards between them – reprising arguments that all of us have heard a million times already. It’s like one of those “Daily Show” segments where children read “Hannity and Colmes” transcripts, only with super-prestigious actors doing the honors instead.  


The college scenes aren’t much more believable. The movie takes the typical, condescending “kids are too apathetic these days” idea at face value, at the same time employing pretzel logic to explain why two students of a pacifist professor would sign up to serve in Afghanistan. This is put across in an unintentionally hilarious flashback scene in which Pena and Luke give a class presentation as a roomful of students shout insults at them. And because of this, as if to prove them wrong, the two of them sign up to serve.


Would college students really be comfortable, in the classroom of a bleeding-heart liberal prof, with tossing insults at two students, one black and one Hispanic, who both grew up in abject poverty? On most college campuses I’d ever heard of, students would be too afraid of being called racist, if not being brought up on charges of violating a speech code. Moment after moment in the film just plain ring false.


What’s sad about this sort of movie is that it’s not the slightest bit aimed at “educating” the public, or “changing peoples’ minds.” “Lions for Lambs,” like every other liberal message movie of recent years, was made entirely to preach to the choir, and to validate the feelings of everyone who already agrees with every idea in it.


© 2007 North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.


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