Lions for Lambs
Not only that but Redford directs, Michael Matthew Carnahan wrote the script, and both Michael Peña, Peter Berg and Derek Luke star. The list of reasons why this would be a very strong and insightful political film are great, but there's good with the bad.
Amongst the squad are two soldiers who are former promising political science students of a college professor. He sees the same spark of greatness in a new student who has lost interest in his course and future, and he has invited him in for a discussion about his future and that of U.S. politics.
Then there's the politician who began this new offensive. He's invited a news reporter in for an hour long interview. The reporter once wrote promising things about him, and the politician wants to return the favour with an exclusive one to one interview. Except he's got a spin, he wants to sell this new initiative in Afghanistan that will win the war, and he wants to sell it his way.
I did have very high hopes for Lions for Lambs – the cast, the Director, the Writer, and the subject matter, everything looked as though it was going to be an interesting, thought provoking and engaging film.
Yet I felt excluded from much of the discussion, listening disconnectedly as there were back and forth discussions on U.S. politics, history, foreign policy, American wars, and the general state of America.
These discussions are punctuated by two things, one is the action going on in Afghanistan, and the other are the more moralistic and wider issue speeches that the characters make, and each one has at least one of them to make. There's the press and the face of the public from Meryl Streep's reporter, there's the political and common sense from Tom Cruise's politician, and then there's the right thing to do speeches from Robert Redford's professor.
What there isn't is any non-American view, and this is something that seems to be affecting the opening days of the release of the film. Watching it I felt disconnected from much of the back and forth discussion because it is so American, I knew what they were talking about, and I had references in history, but a lot of the time I just didn't feel emotionally connected to it and I think to really feel that way you have to have some emotional connection to America and it's past and future.
However, that's not to say that I didn't appreciate the script and the things that were being said by many of the characters, I did, and I agreed with at least something that every single character said, and that's a very clever aspect of the script.
What hasn't been done here is stereotype, not by a long shot. Not on the characters and their backgrounds or on the things they say and believe, and the judgements they make.
For example the professor isn't anti-war, he's actively served, and he's also extremely pragmatic about life. The politician isn't all about spin and politics, and you can see he believes in what he's doing and there's actually a lot of positives in what he says. The newspaper reporter is caught between the mass media business and real unbiased reporting, something she struggles with to resolve and the politician makes her see.
“Do you want to win the war on terror? Yes, or no...
...this is the quintessential yes or no question of our time...
Yes or no?”
The script takes you down a path before a speech or a quick back and forth of lines such as this which punctuate a belief or point of view on the whole matter, and by the end of it you should feel like the student who has become disinterested with the world around him, you should feel as though your professor has just dealt you a choice, and to a degree I did.
However I just didn't feel emotionally involved or connected with the discussions as I could have been, until it came to the key moments, and not feeling so connected to the issues that they had been talking about prior to these moments lessened their impact.
Come these speeches and key exchanges, like the one above, I did feel there were very common values contained within them that spreads to those outside the U.S., people like myself, and so these were much more relevant to me.
There's a lot of talk about biased politics and viewpoints in the film, and this is something I really don't agree with. The film isn't preaching something other than people are dying, the military are controlled by desk bound politicians and the people are sitting back and letting their elected (or non-elected) officials run their country in the way that they feel fit, and surely those are strong and much needed messages for us all, American or not.
Going back to the film I have to talk about the performances, and this leads to a plea to Robert Redford. Please Mr Redford, please get in front of that screen more often for big, significant roles, because you are utterly engaging and convincing in Lions for Lambs, and the way you deliver lines is so natural and real.
Meryl Streep was good in the film too, although I struggled with the progression of her character from the interview to the television station, these scenes being the messiest of the film. None of that section gelled well for me and I didn't really see where it was going. Still, her performance is strong and she plays off Tom Cruise well.
Cruise does the same, he plays off Streep well, and he does bring across a character for the politician who is respectable, likeable, but also manages to be manipulative and self obsessed at the same time. There are some great moments where we see nervousness and impatience coming through in his performance in moments where he is talking about something that, on the surface anyway, he should be confident and fully committed on.
When he and Streep have any exchange where they banter differing views back and forth you can really see the calibre of acting step up. He attacks with restrained ferocity, while she retreats and fumbles in her responses.
There's no doubt that the acting is strong in this film, and is there little doubt considering the talent involved.
The direction and editing is very good as well. I'm not sure how much of the cutting back and forth between threads was in the script, but on film it looks perfect. There's no point I felt that we'd moved story improperly, and the only issue I had with the film making were the television studio scenes which I felt weren't as smooth and flowing as the rest of the film.
One thing that really irked me about this film was the big advertisement for Starbucks. That really did stick out in some scenes. I didn't need that cup waved around again and again to know that they were drinking coffee in the real world thank you very much, however I do hope that it provided enough funding for the film.
I always say that you should leave a film feeling something, and that it should stay with you after the ending and as you head home. It shouldn't just be what you're having for tea that's on your mind.
With Lions for Lambs I've been feeling haunted by the film and I can't quite decide how I feel about it. On the one hand there are very clever moments with cleverly scripted and thought provoking lines delivered by wonderful actors, but on the other it's sometimes a little too distanced from the non-American audience and leaves them behind, and so when the important speeches come we're not along for the ride, and we almost feel preached too.
There has to be a lot of credit for the script and the actors though, this is an intelligent film that does actually present a pretty unbiased view of the characters and events in the world today. The preaching and leading is done on a level that is non-political and often more common sense.
Whatever your politics, beliefs or nationality, this film will have you thinking and discussing its views well after you've watched it. It's just unfortunate that the film loses impact with an audience not so connected to America and American politics, however there still are some good things to be heard, and some strong moments in the film. If nothing else, it's worth seeing for the performances of the three superb actors.