At one point in the teacher-student segment of the tripartite “Lions for Lambs,” the concerned professor played by Robert Redford (who also directed) tells the underachieving frat boy (Andrew Garfield) he’s trying to inspire that the criticisms of the establishment the young man is making are “just talk,” and that he needs to take action to improve things. It’s an ironic comment, because the movie itself is little more than a gabfest that may have its heart in the right place but drones on and on in an effort to raise the audience’s consciousness about getting involved in determining and executing policy involved in the so-called war on terror. The result is a crushing bore, though a sincere one.
That conversation between the professor and the whiz-kid can be thought of as the purely intellectual part of the picture’s argument, with the teacher prodding the student into taking a serious stand by talking about two of his former charges, Ernest Rodriguez (Michael Pena) and Arian Finch (Derek Luke), who made a commitment by enlisting in the army. That switches us into the second plot line, in which the duo are engaged in the implementation of a new strategy in Afghanistan that will place small detachments of American troops on high ground to dominate the surrounding countryside. But the strategy leads to the two men being injured and trapped alone on an icy plateau, facing a horde of approaching Taliban insurgents. The third part of the picture focuses on the author of the strategy, Senator Jasper Irving (Tom Cruise), who spends an hour trying to persuade wary veteran newswoman Janine Roth (Meryl Streep) of the need to win the struggle against Islamic terrorism at all costs and of the promise of the operation he urges her to portray in the most positive light. But she remains unconvinced, doubting that the media world she represents should once again become a virtual cheerleader for any supposedly decisive military option.
Obviously writer Matthew Michael Carnahan (who also wrote “The Kingdom”) intends to raise serious issues not only about the Bush administration’s bellicose inclinations and managerial ineptitude, but also about the resultant sacrifice of many—especially those of lower socio-economic status lured by a real sense of purpose into service to them—and, most importantly perhaps, the public apathy that allows an arrogant government and the compliant, profit-oriented media to sell and perpetuate so misguided a policy. Unfortunately, his script is clunky and obvious, more dissertation than drama. It’s so talky that at times one wonders why they bothered to turn it into a movie at all; it might have been just as effective to put the various actors behind podiums on a stage, reciting their lines.
And in cinematic terms, Redford’s treatment of it is flat anyway. One might expect the long dialogue scenes to drag—and they certainly do, given their stately pacing and Philippe Rousselot’s unimaginative cinematography—but even the action sequences featuring Pena and Luke plod. Nor do the performances add any depth to writing that makes the characters all spokespersons rather than fully-drawn human beings. The Cruise-Streep sequences come off worst, with the former strutting about his office and flashing a toothy shark smile and the latter fussing about so much that she becomes a virtual self-caricature. But the Redford-Garfield scenes are nearly as bad, sounding like no real conversation that ever occurred between a teacher and student. As for the Pena-Luke thread, it might best be described as visually threadbare, and the performances no better than earnest. (Peter Berg, who directed “The Kingdom,” shows up as their commander, barking orders in his finest mock-military style. It’s so stagy a turn that it makes you wish he’d stick to working behind the camera.)
The title comes from an observation made about the British effort during World War I, when a German opined that the infantrymen serving in the trenches were as courageous as lions but the leaders behind the lines weaklings sending them to their deaths—a point obviously meant to be applied to present circumstances as well. That’s certainly a defensible point of view, but Redford’s movie actually doesn’t contribute much more to the debate than the endless blather of the punditry on those so-called 24-hour news cable networks. As Redford’s Professor Malley might say, it just amounts to more talk.