Lions for Lambs is one of many films to recently come out and explore the meaning behind events in the War on Terror over the last couple of years. It has a three foci, three meetings between two people each time that it profiles and seeks to use to explain the disaster that the war on terror has become over the past couple of years. In Washington we see the experienced and canny reporter Janine Roth coming to interview the young rightwing senator Jasper Irvine, in a West Coast University, the academic Professor Stephen Malley has invited along a good but cynical student for a pep talk and out in Afghanistan two friends who studied under Malley get ready to fly out on a doomed mission. All three of these meetings interweave with each other. Irvine is the man whose plan is sending those two soldiers out into the rugged mountainous terrain of Afghanistan. The reason that those two are there though is that Malley encouraged them to think of a life of public service, something he is now encouraging Todd Hayes to think about as well. The contrasts and the connections are supposed to make us think- but they don't and the film fails because they don't.
One of the problems is that dramatically only one of these encounters actually works. The encounter between Meryl Streep playing the journalist and Tom Cruise playing the Senator is wonderfully handled- Cruise has never in his career been this affective or frightening, Streep is at her typically perfect level of performance and the meeting is a real battle of wits and personalities. The two actors throw themselves at the roles- interepreting them with a wonderful degree of subtlety and of course neither of them are ever completely innocent. Were that degree of balance true of the other two meetings then the film would work, but it isn't there. Robert Redford is just too good an actor for his counterpart, playing the student, Andrew Garfield to cope with. Redford dominates their discussion. Furthermore the two soldiers who are swiftly shot down and left alone on the field don't really have much to say to each other, they just suffer and shoot in the darkness, their scenes become purposelessly monotonous (not even obviously monotonous because the director intercuts them with the other scenes) and the audience swiftly gets tired of the lack of action.
The pity is that there is a really interesting film struggling to get out of this not so good film. The encounter between the journalist and the senator is about as good as political film making gets. One could imagine something with the psychological depth of Interview coming out of the dialogue between Streep and Cruise and there is something most definitely there. Their encounter is filled with passion- anyone who has seen the more polished supporters of the war in America will recognise Cruise's character. He blasts Streep off the stage at times with his prenouncement that America cannot lose, cannot lose the war on terror, that there are only two choices and one of them is defeat. You feel the sophistry but find it difficult to resist as does Streep. The point of the dialogue though is that often it is subtle, it requires thought to follow what is happening and were it to be abstracted from the film it might be the most intelligent thing yet filmed about the war on terror, with nuances on both sides.
But the problem is that the director, Redford, doesn't want us to think. He wants to hammer home his points. So we have the other two segments which are meant to remind us of the Senator's indifference to human life. We see young soldiers sent to war and dying in that war, in their countries' service. We see their ex-Professor discuss with a student the injustice of a country which sends the poorest off to fight and die for their oppressors, we see him argue with that student's modish cynicism. And somehow those two lecturing stories seem not to work. The deaths of the soldiers are sad and terribly sad. The lecture of the Professor is impressive to some extent. It is true that I think as I'm sure many others think of the bravery of those off in the wars of our world. But ultimately all those questions are dealt with without nuance. Ultimately the most affecting moment about the public interest is in observing not the virtuous cardboard characters of the soldiers, nor the sophistical sparring of student and teacher, but in the conversation between journalist and senator when the senator reminds her of her responsibilities as a journalist and how she has failed the nation. That is the moment at which it bit home to me that there was a public interest- not in the sermons but in the revelation that she too was a sinner.
We can see it as well in the argument about the war on terror too. One of the major issues about Cruise's character lies in the way that he uses emotion to make his arguments- the emotion of September 11th 2001, the emotional appeals against the evildoers and terrorists. The point that is being made is that we should use our reason- but then that point is lost through an emotional battering ram as crude as Cruise's. Soldiers are dying in Afghanistan, but people were dying before we got there and would definitely die if we left, their deaths are as legitimate. Emotion gets us nowhere- we need to work out the wisdom of courses of action using reason. We might get to the same conclusions as the film makers- indeed I think we would but the emotional appeal cheapens the argument and makes the film a counterpart to the appeals from the right that it seeks to satire.
Ultimately films don't stand or fall by faulty politics- great films were made in the service of hideous regimes, one thinks of Eisenstein's masterpieces in the 1920s. They stand or fall by their cinematic quality- the problem with Lions for Lambs is that the cinematic quality of the film falls short. Ultimately the stories don't mesh well together- the film is too obviously didactic, too emotional in its appeals. The pity is that there is a really good film embedded into this- if only Redford had let Streep and Cruise do their bit we could have had something fascinating, examining both politician and journalist and all the other themes he wanted to bring out. Instead we have a mess, in which the good and the bad coexist and you are left shaking your head at the end, knowing that so much talent went into this, seeing at least three good performances but emerging from the cinema dissatisfied.
This film tries to be great, but it fails. Its a worthy effort but it isn't a successful one.
CORRECTION Both Matt Sinclair and Lord N thought that I really enjoyed the film. I should highlight I didn't. Maybe this review doesn't convey enough what I thought but I thought that the film was preachy and over emotional, not reasoned. The thing is I thought there could have been an interesting film made of the conversation between Streep and Cruise- but that was not the film that came out in the cinemas. I hope that makes sense of the above- and apologise for not being clear.
Crossposted at Bits of News.