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Dustin Putman

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Lions for Lambs  (2007)
2 Stars
Directed by Robert Redford
Cast: Robert Redford, Meryl Streep, Tom Cruise, Andrew Garfield, Derek Luke, Michael Pena, Peter Berg, Kevin Dunn, George Back, Kristy Wu, Bo Brown.
2007 – 88 minutes
Rated: Rated R (for some violence and language).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, November 2, 2007.
In the last few months, every week or two has seen the release of a politically-charged, post-9/11 drama—among them, the thought-provoking "In the Valley of Elah," the mundane "The Kingdom," and the shallow-headed "Rendition." "Lions for Lambs" is the latest timely effort to join the fray, but, like those latter two aforementioned films, it is bogged down in obviousness and doesn't really open any fresh avenues for discussion that haven't already been debated and argued to death. For all of its talky chamber-piece characteristics—and make no mistake, the script by Matthew Michael Carnahan (2007's "The Kingdom") would be much more suitable as a stage play—the picture is emotionally inert and intellectually flat.

Taking a cue from 2005's "Crash" and 2006's "Babel" in its interconnected multi-character narrative, "Lions for Lambs" follows three separate groups of characters in locations across the globe over the same one-hour time frame. The first, set in Washington, D.C., finds weary news journalist Janine Roth (Meryl Streep) sitting down to interview Senator Jasper Irving (Tom Cruise) and unexpectedly being given exclusive information on a sure-to-be-controversial new military order that will place U.S. troops behind Afghanistan's enemy lines. In Afghanistan, Army rangers Arian Finch (Derek Luke) and Ernest Rodriguez (Michael Pena) are put directly in harm's way as a result of this mission, injured on a snowy mountain as the Taliban quickly move in on them. And at a California university, political science professor Stephen Malley (Robert Redford) holds a meeting with the cynical Todd Hayes (Andrew Garfield), a student whom he senses is putting to waste great potential.

When it is revealed that Arian and Ernest were two former pupils of Stephen's who defied his recommendations and opted to serve in the military, the viewer immediately knows that nothing good can come of their current quandary atop that Afghani mountain. Likewise, when Janine, mistrustful over a new war plan that Senator Irving claims is foolproof, puts up a fight with her managing editor over how to report the story, it is a foregone conclusion which side is destined to win out. And so it goes with "Lions for Lambs," a film that preaches both sides but never rises above the blacks and whites of the issues. Director Robert Redford (2000's "The Legend of Bagger Vance"), his personal beliefs never more than a step away from the subjects being dealt with, is sincere in his treatment, but that earnestness clouds the story, characters and actors from coming to life. Instead, these things are strangled within a screenplay so in love with itself—indeed, the same conversations exchanged throughout can be heard around the clock on serious television news programs—that it fails to bring shape and nuance to any of it.

The performers, all of them solid enough, act as if they were in front of a live audience. This is not a criticism of them, but an observation relating once again to the film's staginess. When Tom Cruise (2006's "Mission: Impossible III"), as the mechanical, falsely positive Senator Jasper Irving, turns glassy-eyed in one scene as he gives an impassioned speech to Janine, it doesn't feel organic. Instead, it comes off as an isolated moment of desperation to breathe depth into a character that doesn't otherwise have any. The same sort of thing holds true for Robert Redford's Professor Stephen Malley, who wants nothing more than to break through to Todd and give him hope for a brighter future.

As is usually the case with any movie she's in, Meryl Streep (2006's "The Devil Wears Prada") stands out as the one actor fully in control of the person she is playing and the proper way to enrich a character who, too, is broadly drawn. Streep's Janine Roth portrays the voice of the audience, questioning Senator Irving on the understandable doubts of the nation. After making a critical decision that goes against her own beliefs, the subtle but sure emotions Streep silently expresses on her face are honest and true.

As far as can be told, "Lions for Lambs" has one objective: to open up a dialogue among audience members about our country's current political affairs as it relates to the so-called "War on Terror." The film does not offer any concrete answers, which is how it realistically should be, but it also doesn't bring anything new or eye-opening to the table for discussion. That the picture depicts the enemy as shadowy, cloaked, faceless figures certainly doesn't help matters in humanizing a story that purports not to take steadfast sides. "Lions for Lambs" will not change anything. It probably won't even put a dent in the the U.S.'s consciousness. Regrettably, it's more of the same with only cursory signs of a soul.
© 2007 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman