The poster for Lions for Lambs depicts three famous faces Streep, Cruise and Redford and poses a series of empty questions: What would you fight for?, What would you stand for? Its a fitting if ironic piece of publicity for a movie that takes such a scathing view of the vacuity of the media and of the political commentary the public are willing to swallow.
Make no mistake: Lions for Lambs makes best use of its excellent cast, but it isnt about the cast. This isnt a Streep movie, a Cruise movie or even a Redford, despite his additional role as director. This is a film about the American public, and the things it has allowed to happen ever since 9/11.
Tom Cruise plays an ambitious Republican hawk. Launching a new strategy in Afghanistan, and desperate for a crowd-pleasing win, he offers journalist Janice Roth (Meryl Streep) the exclusive story. Meanwhile, in California, a political science Professor Malley (Robert Redford) tries to convince bright but apathetic student Todd (Andrew Garfield) to attend classes and engage with the process. And in Afghanistan, two of Malleys ex-students, now soldiers, are stranded on a desolate ridge when an attack goes south.
World-spanning ensemble films arent new: after Traffic and Babel theyre almost a sub-genre. But what makes Lions for Lambs stand out is its ambition – the three strands of the story dont intersect, their connections and parallels remaining subtle (nevertheless, the film ends excellently). Built around two dialogues, events proceed in real time. Listening to one conversation, were aware that the others are moving on without us.
The script would have made for a cracking play, and indeed, it was originally conceived for stage. The move to film is a sharp one, however, better for reaching the intended audience; and its genuinely refreshing to see a film so interested in conversation over action. No falling-off-high-building climaxes here. Superb acting provides all the required tension, pathos and revelation. A pleasant surprise, considering that writer Matthew Carnahans previous script was The Kingdom: something of a different take on the War on Terror.
Smartly, Lions for Lambs takes the hypocrisy of politics as a starting point rather than an end goal, and quickly expands its gaze outwards. What about the media that puts politicians there, playing their tune and not printing the unauthorised truth in case its wrong? What about the apathetic masses the empowered, educated people who bankroll the system? A better question for the poster: are dissembling politicians responsible for the country that has allowed them to rule?
All six characters are educated, sharp and well-informed: their discussions range quick and fast, and the script is sharp enough to keep up. Streep and Cruise deliver a fascinating and barbed recapitulation of America since 9/11 that pulls no punches (Abu Grabe, that was a real meal-ticket for you, Cruise smiles to Streep’s reporter. Later, Do you remember the way fear coloured everything after 9/11?) The scene between Redford and Garfield shines, switching sharply from smart-arse intellectual exchanges to powerful truths.
This latter dialogue mirrors the audiences position: the politicians, military and media are in control, so why should we care? Redfords plea and he takes the Professors role so that he can be the one to make it is that we must care. Rome is burning, son, he declares, impassioned.
Intelligent America has been too silent for too long. Even if some of the arguments here are cut short, even if sentiment finally overwhelms the colder rationale of the start, even if the end-credits are saccharine silhouettes of soldiers, protestors and voting booths, at least Lions for Lambs is willing to engage in debate and not bury the complexity of the modern world. And thankfully, it has a lot of interesting things to say. Superb.