Post Millennial Malaise 18: Lions for Lambs

In Which There’s a Lesson to be Learned

One of the truisms of film watching is as follows: the greatest sin a movie can commit is not to be bad, but to be boring. While truisms tend to be overly broad, even if there is a heart of authenticity, this is one that nearly hits the money all of the time. When talking about movies I rarely fall back on entertaining as a metric of quality (there are many great movies that are far from than entertaining), but instead tend to prefer engaging. Is my attention held for how many minutes of screen time the filmmakers have deemed necessary or not?

If the answer is no than that’s as big a failure as anything. If the answer is no, with a dollop of tonally confused political commentary on top, than you’ve got a disaster on hand. Such is the case with Robert Redford’s 2007 Iraq War drama Lions for Lambs. A film that presupposes, “what if we watched three rather inert stage plays that laid bare all the big questions of the era.” The result is an excruciatingly tedious lecture on “the issues of the day” without enough insight to come to any thoughtful  conclusions. It’s the worst elements of all contemporary political cinema delivered into one package.

The problem with Lions for Lambs is that it wants to make a grand statement speaking directly to the times while the times were constantly evolving. Movies are in a uniquely tough spot when it comes to talking of the moment, because moments move quickly and films take time, and once you’ve got your statement squared away things have changed. Redford belligerently falls into that trap here, but makes the added mistake of trying to massage in some wiggle room for his messaging.  For as much as this is a liberal screed against the Bush administration, it’s also a failure of political backbone, waffling when it should stand firm.

The narrative, as much as there is one. Follows three separate arcs: A reporter (Meryl Streep) interviewing a Republican senator (Tom Cruise) about new operations in the Middle East, a professor (Redford) cajoling a student (Andrew Garfield) into staying politically active, and two soldiers (Michael Peña and Derek Luke) falling prey to the new ops being executed. Redford tries to weave these three stories together to create a portraiture of a world out of wack, but instead creates three boring stage plays that are forced together into something like a movie.

The issues are almost all born from Redford and his particular personality. He’s the Hollywood Liberal par excellence: a rich man who rides nominally progressive tides to equal parts adulation and scorn. However, he’s still a Hollywood mogul, and whenever he explicitly tries to dip his toe in work like Lions for Lambs it comes off too much as a pat on the back and self congratulatory. That he, Robert Redford, star of stage and screen, dares to talk out against the Iraq war just as it’s approval in the culture began to wane, should be applauded.

So we don’t only get ham handed touches of commentary from our cast of characters, but also mealy mouthed bromides about how one should act in the face of political injustice, only for the whole film to skimp on tying these things together into a fully coherent point. Streep’s reporter rails against the lies that led to the Iraq war, but then slightly falters when realizing she made mistakes. Redford sits astride  his desk, making the weakest professorial arguments such as, “maybe people should join the military, because at least it’s a choice.” It’s all very 2006 thinking, a shot to the Daily Show audience that lacks any of that program’s wit or bite.

Stacking on to the problems is that by this point Redford the director has lost any touch that he previously had. Ordinary People is overly maligned as an undeserving Best Picture winner, it’s still a solid character drama carried by a handful of well executed performances. Even Quiz Show demonstrated that Redford still had a handle of tony Hollywood historic drama. But Lions for Lambs is a dud. Trading classicism for stodginess, and keeping what should be volatile material nailed down as much as possible. It tries to pull off a high-wire act where there’s a net merely feet below the material. Redford can’t even stick to his “real time” conceit, frequently cutting to flashbacks to underline the drama of the situation.

It’s especially noticeable in the section actually set in the Middle East. The two soldiers stuck in a snowstorm is theoretically a set-up ripe for tension and poignancy, but instead Redford opts for a muddy and dark look that hems in whatever excitement could have been drawn for this moment. The audience is treated to whooshing snowflakes and bullets with little concern on how this moment plays. Leading to the inevitable tragedy to feel more like pointless tedium than ratcheting tension.

And what does Redford make of all this mess. Well not much really. The Iraq war is bad, but what are you gonna do about it. Maybe the press shouldn’t just act as stenographers, but then what, who knows. Maybe being politically active is good, but in what way, how are these people supposed to make a difference. In the moment this reeks of confused waffling, but in hindsight it’s laughably weak. A mere year after this film’s release the political environment would be much more hostile to the current admin, and these ideas would seem like a quirk of the immediate past.

So Redford gets the distinction of creating what is perhaps the worst, most eye-rolling, and tedious take on the contemporary problems in America on Hollywood platform. It hits all the current groan worthy moments without having the decency to be interesting in any manner. On every level this film is a failure and deserves it’s largely forgotten status.

Odds and Ends

  • Hey what do you know, this is the feature debut of one Andrew Garfield.
  • The way over-qualified cast really shows that Redford could throw his weight around.
  • This movie barely cracks 80 minutes before credits, and boy is it ever a slog to get to the end of this thing.
  • I wish professor Redford would sit backwards in his chair.

Next week’s a holiday say nothing for the first, but afterwards I will begin a series on the three movies from the Three Amigos all released in 2006.

June 8: Pan’s Labyrinth

June 15: Babel

June 22: Children of Men