Robert Redford's Lions for Lambs is not exactly a cinematic tour de force. In fact, it could have easily been a play, or even a staged reading. Set in three places for the entirety of the movie's 88 minutes, it's low on action and high on talk. Thus, while it's not a visually interesting film, as a spirited debate about current politics, Lions for Lambs is very engaging.
One of the locales is in the office of California professor Dr. Malley who has called in one of his brightest students, Todd (Andrew Garfield) to find out why the boy went from enthusiastic debater to a slacker who's stopped participating. In their discussions Dr. Malley tells Todd about former students of his Ernest and Arian, who, inspired by Dr. Malley's class to do something meaningful with their lives, joined the military. He explains that the two were not the brightest kids and that he didn't even agree with their decision. But they risked their lives to do something important while Todd, with all his intelligence and privilege, was cutting class and slacking off. Meanwhile, in Washington, DC, a senator (Tom Cruise) reveals to a journalist (Meryl Streep) his bombshell plan of action that will directly impact Arian and Ernest's lives. Lively arguments about right and wrong ensue. Actually, with the exception of some combat scenes with Arian and Ernest, the majority of the movie is filled with argument.
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This is not just a debate over the current administration's dealings in Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan — what went right, what mistakes were made, etc. It's also an examination of the nature of apathy. In particular, I am intrigued by the critical eye Redford casts on young people — college-aged kids and people in their 20s who find themselves caught in an extended adolescence. The bright, youthful, idealistic and energetic members of our society who, instead of trying to do something, choose to be distracted and disaffected.
What's more, Redford never suggests all these youths join the military (in fact, his character discourages this). It isn't so much a call to arms as it is a call to heart. The performances are fine — Streep is especially compelling — but they are secondary to the issues at hand. Redford is wise and stern, and likable on screen. Cruise is smarmy and superior, employing that sneer that always reminds me of his hateful character in Magnolia. And yet, he's not totally without humanity. Whomever you sympathize at the end of this talk-heavy film, and however you feel about Redford's decision to make it, at the very least Lions for Lambs will get you thinking and maybe discussing some important stuff.