Directed by Robert Redford. USA. 2007.

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While corporate owned television stations are preoccupied with ratings and celebrity scandals, movies may be the only vehicle left that can take an honest look at U.S. foreign policy issues and their impact on society. Written by Matthew Michael Carnahan, Robert Redford’s Lions for Lambs attempts what radio, television, and news media have not provided – a focused debate on the war on terror, particularly on U.S. policy in Iraq and Afghanistan. It does so by setting up three situations in which ideas are presented and discussed by plausible and intelligent spokespersons. One is an interview of a conservative U.S. Senator by a liberal reporter, the other between a professor and a student, and the third, a dramatization of idealistic soldiers sacrificed for a failed policy.  

Meryl Streep is Jeanine Roth, a somewhat jaded journalist who is given a one hour interview by an up and coming Republican Senator Jasper Irving (Tom Cruise). He provides her with a briefing about a new policy in Afghanistan that involves sending small groups to secure advance mountainous positions ahead of the spring thaw and prevent the uniting of Shia and Sunni forces. Focusing on Iraq, Iran, 9/11, the war on terror, and battle strategy, Cruise is charming and convincing as the mouthpiece for the government’s policy while Streep is disdainful and tough minded. Although their conversation is realistic and often poignant, it ultimately leads nowhere. 

In the second episode, Redford is a professor at an unnamed California University who tries to convince Todd Haynes (Andrew Garfield) a bright but apathetic student to adopt a position of more involvement and responsibility. While the Redford-Garfield interchange is quite affecting and Redford charming as ever, it is not clear if the professor is attempting to make his student a political activist or just a more committed student. To make a point about commitment, he tells Todd about two of his former students who volunteered for active duty in Afghanistan against his advice and their odyssey in Afghanistan is shown in flashback.  

The Chinook helicopter they are traveling in is fired upon while attempting a landing in a mountainous part of Afghanistan. Arian Finch (Derek Luke) and Ernest Rodriguez (Michael Pena), jump from the helicopter without chutes and land in the snow. While another helicopter attempts a rescue, the two are fired on by hooded and shadowy insurgents. While the segment is powerful in showing how some soldiers enlist to make a difference, what remains unstated is that the vast majority of enlistees come from the poorest areas of the country and join the military for practical reasons - finding a career and making enough money to live on.  

While Lions for Lambs should be given credit for attempting to open the discussion to a wider audience, considering the fact that only one quarter of the people still support the administration’s policy, the debate is improperly framed and feels like an anachronism. Key questions are ignored: the justification for our being in Iraq in the first place, whether or not the occupation constitutes imperialism, whether the war is about freedom or oil, and how best to extricate ourselves from a tragic mistake. Even further, the central issue of America’s proper role in a world in which it is no longer respected or even the only great power is ignored. 

Compared to My Dinner with Andre, a film that featured a two-hour conversation about different philosophical points of view, resulting in the growth of the characters and a transforming experience for the viewer, Lions for Lambs is superficial, offering only verbal sparring that skims the surface and tells us mostly what we already know. While the film does hit some targets including the complicity of the media in forwarding the aims of the government, Redford is so cautious about being called one sided that he becomes enmeshed in a balancing act in which he simultaneously waves the flag and carries a protest sign and the film often feels more like a circus juggling act than an exercise in political relevance. 


Howard Schumann
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