Hollywood just can’t stand it any more. Almost forty years after Vietnam and four years since we invaded Iraq, young Americans are still joining the military. That’s obviously intolerable to big thinkers such as Michael Moore, Barbra Streisand and the rest. So Hollywood’s best have sat, thought and created the surefire cure for anyone who might be considering enlisting in the military, running for public office, or writing facts instead of opinion for the TV news.
But there’s only one problem: Robert Redford’s latest directorial effort, “Lions for Lambs”, is a thumping bore. There have been a lot of great anti-war movies, ranging from “All Quiet on the Western Front” to “Platoon.” Suffice it to say, this ain’t one of them.
When I sat down to watch it, the theater had a technical malfunction which caused the movie’s audio to be replaced with a “Battlestar Galactica” video game ad. As it turned out, those proved to be the best three minutes of the film, sparing me from a bit of the movie’s non-stop insipid dialogue from stereoptyped characters.
The plot, in a paragraph A college professor talks to a student about two former students for whom he’d seen great lives ahead, but who had made the terrible mistake of joining the military. Naturally, this condemns them to be tools of Republican maniacs who will waste their lives in a futile struggle against jihadists. The young soldiers — who are obviously doomed, because in Hollywood the only heroes are the ones wearing makeup — are taking part in a new military strategy developed by an aggressive young Republican senator who is at that very moment giving a detailed interview on the strategy to an old crusty liberal reporter. The scenes shift back and forth with predictable results. If it sounds like a dull recipe that includes every known antiwar cliché, that’s because it is.
Early in the movie, we’re taken to Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan, where Lt. Col Falco (Peter Berg) is briefing Special Forces troops about to take the first action of the new strategy. Included in the platoon are two soldiers, Arian Finch (Derek Luke) and Ernest Rodriguez (Michael Peña), who learn that the soldiers are to take high mountain peaks near the Afgan-Iranian border to control the inflow of jihadists. As with the rest of the movie, the acting is good and the setting realistic, yet the scene is less interesting than it should be.
We move to the office of college professor Stephen Malley (Robert Redford) who has invited a student, Todd Hayes (Andrew Garfield) for an early morning cloyingly paternalistic conversation about Hayes wasting his potential, with Malley comparing Hayes to “the last two kids I had who gave me hope”, whom we learn without suspense to be soldiers Finch and Rodriguez.
Hayes is a generic version of a smart-ass student, a caricature of himself. (But then so is every other character in the film.) For every banal question posed by the professor, Hayes has a “gotcha” response such as when Malley asks “Why don’t you care anymore?” and Hayes blithely replies “Why do you think I cared before?”
More trite collegiate rhetoric is on offer. Hayes objects to the idea of running for Congress by asking “So, I get to be one of those turds in DC?” and continues on a rant about pages performing sexual favors under the table and politicians taking bribes. If you tried to write the most unremarkable blathering of a too-smart-for-his-own-good, intelligent-but-unmotivated college frat boy, you’d have a hard time coming up with something as throw-away as the words penned for Hayes by screenwriter Matthew Carnahan.
The scene shifts to the office of Senator Jasper Irving (Tom Cruise), a 40-something West Point graduate who served in Army Intelligence before becoming a politician. Irving has invited Janine Roth (Meryl Streep), a crusty old-school reporter to discuss her writing an “exclusive” story about the new strategy which is being implemented as they speak.
Irving’s office is adorned with framed photos of him with President Bush, Dick Cheney, and Condoleezza Rice, and a quote from Teddy Roosevelt (“If I must choose between righteousness and peace I choose righteousness”), all of which Roth looks at with a combination of admiration and derision. It is a testament to Streep’s acting ability that she can make both of those feelings clear simultaneously and she does give the film’s best performance despite not having very many lines of more than a few words.
Unfortunately, most of those words are bias-tinged questions of the Senator such as “So, we’re going to kill people to help people?” and “How do we know you’re going to get it right this time?” She also gives us this extraordinary statement: “We’re stumbling through one of the worst times to be an American.”
Interspersed among Roth’s trite questioning is Senator Irving, smugly walking around his office lair, giving us platitudes that Hollywood must believe are stereotypically Republican: “We need a win.”, “I’m sick and tired of being humiliated”, “Whatever it takes”. When Irving says “We will take the essential first step” (huh?), Roth replies with the utterly predictable “What have we been doing for the last six years?”
By putting such hollow words in the characters’ mouths, Redford leaves the viewer feeling as if he’s watching a puppet show. No stereotype is left out: Rather than individuals, we have every college student, every professor, every liberal reporter, every ambitious stuffed shirt politician, and every minority group soldier. Instead of making you understand and care about a particular character the movie preaches its hyperliberal message over and over: joining the military is not a smart choice of a path through life and planning military strategy to try to win a war is only for megalomaniacs.
Although there is a welcome bit of criticism of the media, such as Irving asking the reporter “When did you become a windsock?”, it turns that discussion into a critique of the media’s “selling the war” to the citizens. The only mistakes the media have made, according to this film, is in being too supportive of the war.
Throughout both of these conversations, we cut to the first action of Senator Irving’s strategy: a Special Forces helicopter flying into an ambush (but not before making soldiers look cocky and childish), with Rodriguez falling out of the helicopter on to an icy plateau below. His close friend Finch jumps out of the helicopter to try to help his presumably-injured friend. Unsurprisingly, for a film with as little creativity as “Lions for Lambs”, both soldiers sustain almost identical injuries.
These brief military scenes are the only parts of the movie that are not snoringly dull, and considering what you’re watching they are still too cliché-ridden. Finch and Rodriguez are sympathetic characters, a Black guy and an Hispanic guy making a statement that some things are worth fighting for. Yet you know that the heavy anti-war hand of Robert Redford will keep them from getting out alive.
The hollowness of Redford’s character is highlighted by his talking about how he disapproved of Finch and Rodriguez joining the military while at the same time saying he “revered” the reasons they did it. (The Redford character should have been played by Sen. Harry Reid whose “we support the troops” rhetoric is just as phony and just as boring).
In case the moviegoer might mistake Redford’s comments for even a hint of approval, he adds “The starched collars who started this are nowhere near the best and brightest”, and are “beyond irredeemable.” As if we didn’t know what he thought before we paid our money to see this stuff.
The anti-war politics of the big-name cast oozes from their characters. Maybe it’s because they’re all good actors or maybe it’s because their politics are well known, but you can’t help feeling that Cruise is trying to make the Republican senator look pompous and willing to kill American soldiers in a chase for the White House. You can’t help thinking that Robert Redford secretly wishes he were that professor so he could propagandize against the military while trying to sugar-coat his views with the occasional back-handed compliment. And most of all, you can’t help knowing that Meryl Streep truly means it when she says, in obvious frustration, of the war and the politicians around it that “it’s all bull****”.
But politics is not what makes this movie fail. Even if Streep had a valid point, by then you don’t believe a word of this movie if you’re still awake to hear it. In this movie’s case, despite decent performances by the cast, it’s the script that is “beyond irredeemable.”
“Lions for Lambs” wants to be an intelligent critique of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan but ends up being a caricature of an antiwar movie. It’s not as anti-establishment or fraudulent as a Michael Moore film, but it’s not nearly as interesting either. It’s never obviously right nor obviously wrong. Instead, it’s just obvious.
When the film might have ended on a truly poignant moment, such as Finch and Rodriguez’s ultimate sacrifice, we instead sit through a last few minutes of meaningless tripe as Hayes sits on a couch in his frat house, next to a poorly groomed frat brother, wondering whether he should go to class. He looks as bored, jaded, and uninterested as every moviegoer will be after seeing this “entertainment.”
Lions for Lambs is such a bad movie that the usual “star” rating just isn’t adequate. After much thought (at least more than the three minutes it took the Hollywood types to write this nonsense), Human Events bestows its first “Jane Fondas.”
LIONS FOR LAMBS: [produced and directed by Robert Redford, starring Redford, Tom Cruise and Meryl Streep] For outrageous portrayals of American troops as fools and tools, for propaganda aimed at turning young people against enlisting in the military or running for public office, for suggesting that our political leadership is willing to sacrifice our soldiers in order to win their next election, and for lionizing reporters who give us their liberal opinion rather than the news, we award:
Three and one-half JFs.