Lions for Lambs *** ½ (out of ****)

Director: Robert Redford
Writer: Matthew Michael Carnahan
Cast: Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep, Robert Redford, Michael Pena, Derek Luke, Peter Berg
Rating: R (war scenes, language)
Running Time: 90 min
Release Date: 11/9/07

“Do you want to win the War on Terror? Yes or No?” Sen. Jasper Irvin (Tom Cruise) asks reporter Jamie Roth (Meryl Streep) at the high point of this dialog laden film. To this Jamie Roth has no real answer. Irvin is a rising star in the Republican Party and Roth is a veteran journalist whose career goes back to 1968 in Vietnam. Liberals such as Roth seem to have no answer to this question if by an answer we mean concrete measures that they are willing to take to achieve this goal.

Lions for Lambs has been a movie that I’ve been awaiting for sometime. Given that Robert Redford has such strong liberal credentials, I was expecting a leftist diatribe that I could skewer. Instead he has given us a comparatively balanced presentation. This film will obviously not be a blockbuster. It’s not an action based drama nor does it clearly pander to either side in the debate.

It consists of three separate stories that are interlinked. In California Dr. Malley (Robert Redford) a political science professor is meeting with a student who shows a lot of promise but has been skipping his lectures recently. Then in Afghanistan a small unit of soldiers is given the mission of taking a strategic mountain peak as part of a new plan to fight the Taliban, and finally Sen. Irvin is giving a backgrounder to reporter Roth in an effort to sell this new strategy to the public. Two of the soldiers on the mission were Dr. Malley’s students who had signed up for the Army against his advice.

Todd (Andrew Garfield) has just been elected president of his fraternity and has a new girlfriend. He has a general disregard for the politicians. Dr. Malley presents Arian (Derek Luke) and Ernest (Michael Pena) as examples to young men who are putting themselves on the line for their beliefs. Certainly Dr. Malley doesn’t want Todd join the military as he is shown in flashbacks trying to talk Arian and Ernest out of it. But he does think that Todd should do something to make a difference rather than just take the job that pays the most money. At least he could attend class and spice up the discussion a little for which Dr. Malley offers a promise of a B.

Meanwhile in Sen. Irvin’s office reporter Roth is sparing with the senator. Irvin makes the point that the issue isn’t how we became involved in Iraq and Afghanistan but what we do now. It seems that he has been in someway involved in developing this new strategy that Arian and Ernest are now executing. She had been part of selling the war in Iraq which she now regrets. Irvin points out quit correctly that big mistakes were made but that people aren’t taking into account the fear and demand for action in the aftermath of 9/11. After all Senators Clinton and Edwards voted to authorize the war. President Clinton used the same incorrect intelligence analysis to justify his bombing campaign against Iraq in 1998. Roth doesn’t buy it but her boss at the network wants the story. It’s a little murky just how this will turn out but Streep gives a prized portrayal of biased journalist in action.

What we do know is that fate doesn’t smile on Arian and Ernest. As their helicopter is flying low over a mountain plateau approaching their LZ they come under fire from the Taliban. Several soldiers are hit and Arian falls out of the helicopter while trying to return fire. Ernest in a crazy move jumps out after him. Neither was killed in the fall but both were seriously injured. While an A-10 is sent in to give them cover and a rescue helicopter is on the way our two heroes fail to conserve their limited ammunition supply. They blaze away at Taliban targets that they can’t see until they are out of ammo leading to a very unfortunate outcome for them.

If this movie has a flaw it may well be finding an audience. Those who are active in the debate probably don’t need this movie and those who aren’t will find its intense dialogue format just boring. However, I have to salute Robert Redford for doing a reasonably fair job of making a balanced presentation of a difficult subject when it might have been far more tempting to launch his own diatribe. I always say that art is greater than the artist. Lions for Lambs may well be an interesting historical artifact thirty or forty years from now. From my own point of view I could only wish that the Republican Party actually had a few more Sen. Irvin’s rather than some the lambs they do have!

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