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Lions for Lambs
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Over There And There And Way Over There"
4 stars

“Lions For Lambs” is a lot like one of those performance pieces that your local radical theatrical troupe might whip together in a hurry in order to protest the latest tragedy in the ongoing war in Iraq–presuming, of course, that your local radical theatrical troupe is somehow able to attract the likes of Robert Redford, Meryl Streep and Tom Cruise as the main players. The result is a film that is less a fully developed portrait of its subject than it is a rough snapshot that conveys the immediacy of the times in a more gripping manner than most of the current crop of fictional films on the subject.

Instead of offering us one central narrative, “Lions For Lambs” gives us a trio of interlinked stories tied to the war that unfold over the course of the same one-hour period in three different locales. In California, college professor Stephen Malley (Redford) is holding a meeting with Todd Hayes (Andrew Garfield), a lazy and disaffected frat boy whom Malley knows is capable of doing more than simply going through the motions. As a way of reaching out to him, Malley tells Hayes about a pair of students that he once had, Arian (Derek Luke) and Ernest (Michael Pena), who lacked the privileged upbringing of their classmates but more than made up for it with their clear-headed idealism–alas, this idealism comes back to haunt Malley when they take a class project to its logical extremes and choose to leave school to join the military.

In Washington, reporter Janine Roth (Streep) has been summoned to the office of Senator Jasper Irving (Cruise) for what he promises will be a no-holds-barred interview on the war. After bantering back and forth about the various past failings on the subject on their respective sides, Sen. Irving drops his big bombshell–a battle plan of his devising to establish a U.S. presence in Afghanistan that, if it works, may both turn the tide of the war and make him into a viable presidential candidate. “When does it start?,” the startled Roth asks. “Ten minutes ago.” Meanwhile, halfway across the world, Arian and Ernest are among the first wave of soldiers going in as part of Irving’s plan but rushed planning leads to the two of them being shot down in enemy territory, where they lay trapped and badly wounded while hoping that the army can send a rescue party before they can be found by the enemy.

Of the three stories contained in “Lions For Lambs,” the best by far is the one involving the senator and the reporter doing cordial battle while the world rages around them. The writing in this section by Matthew Michael Carnahan (whose previous screenplay was “The Kingdom”) is exceptionally strong in the way that it captures the give-and-take that such a meeting might engender. What makes it even more fascinating is that it doesn’t unfold in the manner that you might expect by making him the kind of blatantly over-the-top warmonger that would make Dick Cheney seem cuddly by comparison. When Roth begins to bring up the past mistakes of the war by insisting that it is important to understand how we got to our current situation, Irving brings up two very good points–why didn’t the media ask these questions in the lead-up to the war, when they might have done some good, instead of keeping quiet so as to not seem unpatriotic and why waste time rehashing the mistakes of the past when it could be used to prevent future mistakes. His arguments come across as concise and logical, especially thanks to Cruise’s forceful performance (anyone still laboring under the impression that he is little more than a grin and a few stock gestures should watch him here as he pulls off one of the most difficult things an actor today can do–not only going one-on-one with the likes of Meryl Streep but actually giving her a run for the money, and they are presented with such conviction that it is only on reflection that we realize just how monstrous and cynically conceived his entire plan truly is. If this segment had been spun out into its own feature film, I have no doubt in my mind that we would be ranking “Lions For Lambs” as one of the best movies of the year.

However, it is only one-third of the total package and the problem with the film is that the other two-thirds don’t come close to measuring the dramatic power of this particular segment. The piece involving the professor and the student is an interesting enough idea–its underlying message that the people of America, especially those of the younger generations, are going to have to eventually break out of their cocoons and make a stand if anything is to change–and Redford gives a nicely understated performance as the professor who has already seen his good intentions backfire once with those two previous students and wants to use their good example to set another right as a way of balancing the cosmic scales. However, it is undercut by the inescapable fact that the student in question is portrayed as such a thoughtless, whiny, head-in-the-clouds dolt that you have no idea what it is that the professor sees in him that would inspire this conversation in the first place. (Perhaps it might have been more effective if the screenplay had the professor telling the story to a classroom of disenchanted students instead of a single benighted individual.) As for the segment with the soldiers trapped as the enemy closes in, there is nothing there that hasn’t been seen in any number of past war movies–paradoxically, even though it contains the most visceral action of the three stories, it actually comes across as the stagiest of the bunch.

What is most impressive about “Lions For Lambs”–the aspect that most makes it worth watching–is the gripping immediacy of the proceedings. In the majority of his past films as a director, Robert Redford has favored a slow and measured pace to his stylistic approach that has sometimes been effective (“A River Runs Through It”) but has often been somnambulistic (as in such seeming endless works as “The Horse Whisperer” and “The Legend of Bagger Vance”). This time, no doubt in an effort to match the urgency of the material, his film moves with a breakneck pace that he hasn’t demonstrated since “Quiz Show” (which, perhaps not coincidentally, remains his best directorial effort to date). This is an even more impressive achievement when you realize that virtually every scene in the film consists of a couple of people talking in an enclosed area without any fancy camera tricks or visual flourishes to tart things up.

“Lions For Lambs” it isn’t especially deep or profound but what it lacks in those areas is made up for in the sheer energy, anger and anguish that comes through in every frame. While it may not be the definitive fictional film on the current conflict overseas, it is nevertheless a provocative one that will no doubt inspire thoughtful conversations from both sides of the political fence. That is something worth respecting, no matter what your leanings regarding the war might be, and that makes “Lions For Lambs” a film worth watching.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=16774&reviewer=389
originally posted: 11/09/07 01:35:10
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User Comments

12/08/17 morris campbell interesting film 4 stars
12/21/09 mr.mike I don't agree with it's politics but Redford keeps it from being overly stagy. 3 stars
2/04/09 Faraz J I likde Redford and Cruise. But the movie wa too much talkie talkie. Here to have fun dude. 1 stars
4/06/08 Arcane Excellent movie. Excellent acting. Should be watched. 5 stars
1/25/08 Gretchen Seitz Cruise's accidental portrayal of unintended protagonist can't save film from endinglessness 2 stars
1/24/08 Courtney (almost as bad as tennis elbow) Unappealing leftist propaganda masquerades as war suspense film until lack-of-ending. 2 stars
1/07/08 Double M Mr. Redford, the "wtf-is-a-debate?" crowd wants The Patriot. Make dumb blockbusters instead 4 stars
11/28/07 Abhishek Chakraborty Damit. I wasted my money seeing this film. I wish I'd read efilmcritic first 2 stars
11/24/07 LABELESS worthseeing. Redford is a much needed voice 5 stars
11/18/07 WillReadmore One election didn't fix everything. So don't vote? GenX=wimp. 4 stars
11/14/07 deidre It was intense and if the viewer was not mentally lazy had very healthy messages 4 stars
11/14/07 Joe Smaltz I'm already anti-war, the movie draged, and was very predictable. Needed some tobasco. 3 stars
11/13/07 Hotshot This film sucks ass! Don't waste your money... 1 stars
11/13/07 D If i want to be preached to I will go to church! 1 stars
11/13/07 Naurto No, it's more like you have to be a really dull person to "get" the film. 1 stars
11/13/07 JHensley This was an excellent film. If you don't get it, you're the problem. 4 stars
11/12/07 Debra Sine I am democrat, however, I still love my Country. Save your money. 1 stars
11/12/07 cbid So much wasted potential with this movie's theme. Hollywood writers should stay on stike 3 stars
11/12/07 Lou Redford is a bore, Cruise is a fool 1 stars
11/12/07 Neddymac Provocativismo! Bravo for the thought stimulation! 5 stars
11/11/07 Eva I guess you have to be over 40 to 'get' the film 5 stars
11/11/07 Realist No one wants to see a movie portraying out military as a bumch of losers. 1 stars
11/11/07 DonnyM What a joke film. 1 stars
11/09/07 Chugger This blows so hard and I'm a Democrat 1 stars
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  09-Nov-2007 (R)
  DVD: 08-Apr-2008



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