Shaped by the explosive leftist movement of the 1960s, Robert Redford is the indelible Hollywood liberal. But hell-raising just ain’t what it used to be in the Vietnam days.
An entire generation may have come to know Redford as a political instigator for his roles in films like “The Candidate” and “All the President’s Men,” but does any of that capital translate to a new era, a new war, a new corrupt White House and, most important, a new generation of America’s best and brightest? “Lions for Lambs” – a commentary on post Sept.11 politics in America directed by and starring Redford – provides at best a muddled answer to that question.
With a trio of parallel storylines that are a little too easy to follow, “Lions for Lambs” features Redford as the aging Professor Malley at “a California university.” He has a slacker student named Todd who he thinks can be brilliant, so he calls him into his office to discuss why Todd seems to have given up on college and the future. The discussion that follows is a fine example of everything that’s wrong with America, according to the aging hippie generation – Todd is defensive, argumentative and completely uninterested in taking advice and working to change America’s “bullshit” political culture. So, Prof. Malley decides to tell him about “the last two students who gave him hope.”
Naturally, those two students were economically disadvantaged, underrepresented minorities who only got into the university because of sports scholarships. But they worked hard, excelled in school and come Sept. 11, answered the call by joining the military – despite strong disapproval from Malley, a former Vietnam veteran who had protested the war upon his return. As Todd and Malley sit chatting, those two soldiers (Arian and Ernest) are deployed on a secret special operation in Afghanistan. The operation goes awry, and two of America’s brightest young minds are injured and trapped on a hostile mountaintop during a merciless blizzard.
Behind the secret operation is Sen. Jasper Irving (Tom Cruise), a hotshot Republican senator bent on restoring his party’s reputation by finishing the job in Afghanistan. In the hour that Todd and Malley talk and Arian and Ernest fend off enemy fire, Irving gives an exclusive interview to the journalist Janine Roth (Meryl Streep), detailing his plan and minimizing past mistakes. Roth is suspicious, but Irving is persistent in his claim that the world will change, if we trust our leaders just one more time.
Following a tight script that reads like a lecture at the American Enterprise Institute, Redford raises all the right questions but fails to consider how answers to them might have changed since Vietnam. Veteran incendiaries from the ’70s may brush back their hair to flash battle scars, but is it really so productive for today’s youth to challenge, rouse and ultimately fail in the exact same way? Will policy really change if we storm the streets and hold a permanent march on Washington, or are we better off empowering ourselves to avoid similar mistakes when our turn arrives? There’s plenty to ponder in “Lions for Lambs” – including a tragic, effective final showdown on that Afghan mountaintop – but it’s mostly stuff we’re already thinking about.
The political commentary of the film isn’t hard to follow, and maybe that’s the problem. While nothing it says is wrong, “Lions for Lambs” is almost fanatically over the top in its execution. It doesn’t so much raise questions as inject them forcefully into your bloodstream. It’s a valiant attempt at rousing the troops, but sadly, one that will be largely ignored for its simplistic, unsophisticated zeal.
Lions for Lambs
2 our of 5 stars
At Quality 16 and Showcase