Already cornering the award for “least hyped Tom Cruise movie ever,” Lions for Lambs has all the makings of an Oscar nominee; the ensemble cast du jour, three interlocking stories that don’t quite come together, and a very loaded subject matter. Yet, despite very strong performances (even from Mr. Scientology Cruise), a moving plot about the war in Afghanistan, and probing dialogue by The Kingdom writer Matthew Michael Carnahan, something is missing from this movie… oh right, the movie part.
Originally conceived as a play, and probably better off as such, Lions for Lambs is more of an elegy on the importance of standing for something than a film, relying on probing conversations rather than action to propel the story forward. The first and most engaging conversation takes place between Republican Senator Jasper Irving (Tom Cruise) and veteran TV reporter Janine Roth (Meryl Streep). Irving invites the skeptical Roth to his office for a one-on-one interview to discuss a new stratagem in Afghanistan that he is positive will decisively win the war on terror.
The stratagem, which began “ten minutes ago,” involves dispatching small teams of highly trained men to head off the Taliban at high points along the Afghani border. Irving insists that the military’s superior “intelligence” will reduce risk and increase reward, but the intelligence isn’t so accurate when the first copter sent to the mountains is shot down by a supposedly inactive machine gun. The scuffle renders the copter useless and strands two idealistic young soldiers, Arian Finch (Derek Luke) and Ernest Rodriguez (Michael Pena).
Meanwhile on the campus of an elite California University, Finch and Rodriguez’s former professor, Dr. Stephen Malley (Robert Redford), tries to incite slacker Todd Hayes (Andrew Garfield) to follow their example and apply his incredible potential towards making a difference. The film unfolds in relative real-time as one member in each duo attempts to inspire the other to action, whether it’s to feed America “a win” without question, to go to class more, or simply to stay alive.
Because the film is inherently static, the majority of it taking place in someone’s office, the script relies on powerful performances to keep the audience engaged. Streep and Cruise are the most successful, with a realistic back and forth that probes deep into the flaws of the government and media without vilifying either side. Luke and Pena drive the emotional center of the film and do a good job establishing a friendship built on similar struggles and goals, but they serve more as catalysts for the other two conversations than as developing characters themselves. Redford and Garfield have the most difficult job, stuck discussing what it means to get involved on a philosophical level. Though both play their roles with conviction, at the end of the day, two guys drinking coffee debating questions with no answers just isn’t visually exciting.
Still, the overall strong performances help momentarily distract the audience from the fact that the film never really went anywhere. Sure it brought up (not entirely new) issues, it challenged us to take action, maybe it even made us cry (guilty), but did anything really happen? As a play, I would commend Lions for Lambs without question, but once it becomes a film isn’t there supposed to be a little thing called plot? Something more than discourse on loaded political issues that have already been attacked ad nauseam?
The problem with turning away from this movie is that you then by default prove the message the film is promoting: that when faced with challenges, our country would rather change the channel than get involved. In that sense, this is the most genius film ever created because it inherently guilts you into seeing it and thinking about the issues it ponders. Ultimately that’s a guilt-trip worth taking, since no matter where you stand, you have stand somewhere, and you won’t leave Lions for Lambs without discussing it.