Lions for Lambs (R) ★★½

Review Date: November 12th, 2007

Given that he's one of Hollywood's most famous old-school liberals, Robert Redford's loquacious and theatrical-style Lions for Lambs inevitably but forcefully concludes that the preoccupation with Iraq has brought the war on terror to a standstill.


Lions for Lambs is all talk and very little action. However articulate and astute it is, Matthew Michael Carnahan's screenplay comes across as little more than a transcript of a political-science class debate held three years ago on the Bush administration's post-9/11 military successes and failures. Carnahan, who also wrote The Kingdom, is so intent at getting at the heart of the matter that he ignores the need to contemplate the war on terror within a narrative framework. Instead, Lions for Lambs finds four of its six garrulous protagonists seated behind desks, tossing verbal grenades at each other. In Washington, D.C., young, ambitious and silver-tongued Republican Sen. Jasper Irving (Tom Cruise) lays out his plan to stay the course to skeptical TV journalist Janine Roth (Meryl Streep). In California, wise old college professor Stephen Malley (Robert Redford) tries to persuade slacker Todd Hayes (Andrew Garfield) to apply himself in class by telling him about two former students (Derek Luke and Michael Pena) now in the military. As Malley speaks, his students are executing the first mission under Irving's plan to destroy a revitalized Taliban in Afghanistan. But there's a snafu—of course—and they find themselves injured and cornered by the Taliban. While the action in Afghanistan show how the war is run by a bunch of suits concerned only with advancing their careers, the gunfire thankfully offers a respite from the endless chattering and allows us to step outside of Cruise and Redford's offices. Otherwise, Lions for Lambs would be end up being nothing more than a stage play caught on film for posterity.


No matter how electrifying he is as the pro-war politician, Cruise brings with him his trademark on-and off-screen cockiness and swagger to a role that would be better suited to an actor whom we would find trustworthy and believable. There's no conviction to be found in what the ever-smiling Cruise says. He's just a salesman selling the war on terror and—by extension—himself as the next U.S. president. Granted, Cruise is playing a senator, so every word out of his mouth must be taken with a pinch of salt. But Cruise's smug presence makes every one of Irving's points about the war on terror come across as simply suspect and self serving. Streep doesn't really put up much of a fight against Cruise. As a representative of a complicit media that's more concerned with ratings than gathering news, Streep looks so school-girlishly enamored of Cruise that she seems more likely to jump him than poke holes in his theories on the war. Redford infuses Malley with the right amount of concern and cynicism, though you're never quite sure what it is that the professor sees in his wayward student. Garfield is combative for the sake of combative as Hayes, and never for a moment do you believe that Malley's words will sink in. As a study in contrasts, Luke and Pena—who offered a similar study in the risks and rewards of serving the greater good in last year's World Trade Center—show much grace under pressure when all hell breaks loose around them.


"'Nowhere else have I seen such lions led by such lambs," a German general wrote during WWI about the British soldiers sent to their slaughter by their battle-untested commanders. With this thought in mind, director Robert Redford wastes no time revealing his disdain for the Washington D.C. armchair generals who harbor little regard for the troops on the front line. That point is painfully hammered home by the ill-fated mission undertaken by Luke and Pena. And unlike the hysterical Rendition and the bombastic Kingdom, Lions for Lambs distinguishes itself as the most thoughtful, inquisitive and provocative of all the recent films to tackle the U.S. military response to 9/11. Redford and Carnahan explore the military actions in Afghanistan and Iraq from various perspectives, and they even speculate how the U.S. government would justify an attack on Iran. The goal is to prod audiences to question the decisions made by those in power—especially the Commander in Chief—and to loudly protest when they make mistakes that result in many unnecessary deaths. But given that things remain the same as they were before the last presidential election, Lions for Lambs feels like it's too little, too late. Most of the arguments made against the Bush administration are old, even if they are still relevant, and were explored with far greater scrutiny in the damning No End in Sight. Ultimately, Lions for Lambs suffers from bad timing.

Bottom Line rated this film 2 1/2 stars.