Dir: Robert Redford. US. 2007. 88 mins.
A talky, stagebound curio of a movie, Lions For Lambs is far from the high-octane Hollywood mega-movie its star pedigree would suggest. On the contrary, its star power - Robert Redford, who also directed, Meryl Streep and Tom Cruise - may help to draw attention to this inexpensive 88-minute film, but mainstream audiences will ultimately be baffled by the didactic tone and long, verbose scenes played out in just a handful of settings.
Critics won't be kind to Redford, a legendary Hollywood liberal, who uses the movie as a platform for leftwing grandstanding, even while paying lip service to the arguments from the other side of the political spectrum. Matthew Michael Carnahan's script, rather than telling a story to illustrate ideas, merely employs the characters, each a symbol of something awry in America today, to voice those ideas. It's a transparent and heavy-handed conceit.
International audiences might respond more warmly to the film, not only for it's A-list talent but also for its anti-Bush stance. The title after all refers to the politicians who initiated the invasion of Iraq, citing a German general who said of the English army in World War I: 'Never have I seen such lions led by such lambs.'' But the film won't last long in theatres, and its prospects cannot be weighed by previous movies starring Cruise, who takes third billing here, but rather in the same range as Syriana or Munich.
The film is the first to be produced by Cruise and Paula Wagner's reactivated United Artists, and had its world premiere in London and Rome this week. It is released domestically by MGM on Nov 9 and internationally throughout Nov by 20th Century Fox.
Carnahan, who also wrote the dubious Middle Eastern actioner The Kingdom, wrote the screenplay here, which is another multi-strand storyline - a tired staple since it was brought back into fashion by Crash.
In Afghanistan, two gung-ho US soldiers - African American Arian (Luke) and Latino American Ernest (Pena) - are part of a mission to capture the high-grounds of the country, but when their helicopter is fired on, Ernest falls out onto a snowbound ridge and loyal Arian jumps out after him.
In Washington DC at exactly the same moment, Republican presidential hopeful Senator Jasper Irving (Cruise) outlines the new high-ground initiative to a TV journalist Janine Roth (Streep). Even as she questions his motives, he suggests she is complicit since the media has been so lazy in its war coverage.
At a university in California somewhere, an ageing political science professor Dr Malley (Redford) confronts a privileged white student Todd Hayes (Garfield) whose initial enthusiasm at his studies has waned into apathy. Citing two underprivileged students of his - Arian and Ernest - who joined up to fight in Afghanistan, he tries to relight the fire in Todd and argue that engaging in the process is better than doing nothing.
The film jumps between each story. Both severely wounded, Arian and Ernest lie waiting for enemy fire or rescue; Janine Roth goes back to her editor and tells him she doesn't want to run the Irving story but is threatened with dismissal if she doesn't; meanwhile Todd mulls over what Malley has told him. Should he become involved in the system in an attempt to fight corruption, or just have another drink and watch reality TV'
Best performance here is by Cruise whose charisma and passion fit perfectly with the role of a self-serving right wing politician willing to sacrifice countless more lives to resolve an insoluble situation; Streep is less convincing, giving one of her more mannered performances as the journalist who realizes she left her integrity behind long ago.
Redford meanwhile made a mistake casting himself as the preachy professor. His public persona as a political activist gets in the way here and it's hard to separate the actor from his character as he instructs his wayward pupil to seize the day.
Brat Na Pont Productions
United Artists Pictures
20th Century Fox
Matthew Michael Carnahan
Matthew Michael Carnahan
Director of photography