dir: Robert Redford
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Is it edutainment, or entercation? Is its primary purpose to sell tickets, or as a delivery device for a payload of sweet, sweet knowledge? What if that unasked-for education is little more than the talking points of the two opposing sides of the American ideological spectrum ladled out to you, the bored audience member, with nary a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down, in the most delightful way?
Films about weighty subjects, such as political apathy, the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, or whether men should wear boxers or briefs, are supposed to make you think about the issues. You’re supposed to come away with more questions than answers, inspired to find out for yourself what the real state of play is. A documentary uses footage, facts and interviews to investigate and explore a situation, an issue or a set of issues. If it’s done right, then it answers some questions itself, and raises others of a more ambiguous nature if it’s balanced or about something too complex to be handled simplistically.
In a feature, dramatic film with a political agenda, you expect that an issue is raised and explored in a fictional but credible context, designed to explore ideas in a way that the currents affairs or doco formats cannot, or at least in not as compelling a fashion.
What Lions for Lambs has is people sitting around talking about the issues themselves, in probably the dullest way most audiences could imagine. And it’s probably the most pointless as well, since there’s not a person who sat down to see this who didn’t already know what they thought about America’s nation-building, democracy-spreading, fudge-packing efforts around the world.
To go a step further, the audience Redford hoped to inspire or to challenge were never going to see this in the first place. Only people who already agree that the Iraq adventure is something of a shemozzle, and who think the War on Terror, along with the Wars on Nouns and Other Scary Emotions are a bad thing would watch this 92 minute lecture. This means they already agree with you, Mr Redford, and they’re still bored and mildly irritated with what you’ve wrought.
A Vietnam vet college professor (Redford) tries to convince a sophomore student (Andrew Garfield) to cast off the shackles of political apathy and to re-engage with his class and with the world.
Simultaneously, a veteran reporter of 40 years (Meryl Streep) arrives unarmed for a battle of wits with a Republican senator (Tom Cruise) who wants positive press for his latest brilliant offensive in the War on Terror.
Two of the professor’s former students (Derek Luke and Michael Pena) take part in that brilliant new offensive fighting on the wintery mountaintops of Afghanistan and find themselves badly wounded in a tense situation surrounded by Taliban fighters.
The film cuts between the plot lines whenever anything gets too dull. And boy does it get dull, and quite often. The professor thinks less of the war and more about how the next generation of students seem unconcerned with anything apart from their own job prospects and lifestyle. So when he sees a promising students losing interest in engagement he desperately tries to convince him to think of a larger canvas, of more than could be done than by just adopting a cynical pose and switching off.
The best way the filmmakers thought of to do this? Have the professor and the student sit in the prof’s office and chat for an hour over some Starbuck’s coffee. Try to resist the impulse to masturbate during these sections; I know how tempting it will be for you.
The journalist tries to get meaningful statements out of a senator, and fails repeatedly as they simply exchange platitudes and talking points. Where and when? During a one-hour conversation in the senator’s office. Never has a soulless machine such as Tom Cruise ever played a more appropriate role. He steamrolls over the stuttering Streep like she’s a first-year journalism graduate, using nothing more than focus-group tested, well-worn clichés. Every mealy-mouthed objection she raises to his characterisation of the war is crushed under the weight of another straw man, accusation of unpatriotic beliefs and moral equivalency, or pure, repetitious statements designed to shut down all rational thought or debate.
He could simply have been played by a tape recorder playing an endless loop of “If you’re not with us, you’re against us”, “Do you want to win the War on Terror? Yes or no?” and “One day I will get that Oscar, goddamn it, or by Xenu I will destroy you all.”
Maybe not the last one. It’s too tempting to make cracks about his Scientological beliefs. That and jokes about how short he is, when in truth he’s probably taller than.
Who cares. Celebrities don’t have feelings, and he’s never going to tear up at one of my nasty reviews. Though he could send some of the Church’s lackeys after me.
In truth he’s kind of terrifying in the role. He conveys the seductive power of unwavering belief possessed by politicians whose greatest calling and sense of obligation is towards their own ambitions and towards maintaining the world in the state that it’s in. He’s as blandly charismatic and as absolutely certain in his vision as some of the worst and most successful of leaders, and thus makes me hope that he never enters politics.
Streep, as some kind of Helen Thomas surrogate, is particularly terrible in the role. She alternates between timidity and snarkiness, which makes her look weak in the face of the senator’s absolute certainty, and affects a bewildered air as if to imply that she’s a veteran prostitute who’s just realised that she has sex. For money, no less.
When she forlornly tries to counter the senator’s contention that the media, post 9/11, were more than happy to pave the way for the White House’s plans, and should do so again, she seems surprised by the idea, as if he’s the first person to bring it up in seven years. Wait a second, this woman has been a journo for 40 years, and now has just realised that the media is the handmaiden of the powers that be? Someone get my smelling salts, because I think I’m feeling a bit faint.
Our two soldier boys, inspired by their time with the professor to go out and make a difference, have broken legs and are trapped in the snow awaiting the Taliban onslaught. They are surrounded early on, but the Taliban don’t attack straight away. One soldier asks the other “Why aren’t they attacking yet?”
Since this happens early on, the response I thought I heard from the Taliban, though my Pashtun is a bit rusty, was “Because even though there’s no credible reason to stretch this situation out for the next hour, Redford wants the dramatic ending to act as the full stop to this dire polemical tract.” That’s just my translation, I could be wrong.
It’s hard to know what further to say about this monstrosity. There are times when Redford is talking almost down the barrel of the camera, wanting to lecture straight to the audience, abandoning the pretence that there’s anything dramatically fictional about this. And he’s talking directly to American youths or young people who are more concerned with getting laid and getting a nice car than they are about the state of the world and what America is doing or not doing to cause/alleviate it.
Who wants to be lectured to? Even university students don’t like being lectured to, not that much. I certainly don’t like being berated like I’m a recalcitrant child. That desire, that impulse he has is little different from the impulse to reach out and grab someone’s shirt and shake them when they don’t agree with you. It’s not a great place to be starting from when you’re trying to construct an interesting and relevant film about contemporary events.
This flick could have been improved substantially if they’d rethought the manner in which the primary arguments would be made. Talking heads talking at each other without any connection, which is like listening to four separate monologues, does nothing to get the point across. It’s just noise.
And using the fate of the two soldiers to say: “You see? You see what happens when committed but idealistic people disagree with me?” is pretty rich. Rich in the sense that it’s the final insult, especially since it’s delivered in such a ham-fisted manner. Oh, there’s so much ham in this film that it should be declared a processed meat and served in slices from your local deli.
In all fairness, most of the flick isn’t glaringly horrible, but I was particularly disgusted with Streep for her portrayal of the journalist. It couldn’t have made less sense, been a weaker or lazier performance, or given a less credible sense of what a Washington veteran could possibly act like in such given situations. It would have made more sense if she started exposing herself to children and drinking paint whenever the senator or her editor contradicted her.
A tragic misfire, with twaddle masquerading as meaning.
5 times I’d rather watch Redford whispering to goddamn horses than ever watch this again out of 10
“Nowhere else have I seen such lions led by such lambs.” - Lions for Lambs.