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Cruise and Streep in "Lions for Lambs"
"Lions for Lambs"; a review by Gary Chew    

GARY CHEW/Sacramento

President Thomas Jefferson, one of our founding fathers, is attributed for language that relates to the title, "Lions for Lambs." It alludes to 'lions' fighting a war under the command of 'lambs.' Robert Redford directs the picture and plays Dr. Stephen Malley, a political science professor at a California university.

Meryl Streep is Janine Roth, a middle-aged television network news correspondent in D.C. Tom Cruise is cast as a youngish Republican U.S. Senator whose name is Jasper Irving. The Senator claims he's never going to run for the Presidency. So obviously so much pelican poo.

Young male actors are plentiful in "Lions." There's Andrew Garfield as Todd Hayes who receives a one-on-one lecture from Dr. Malley advising him to get his act together in class. (Seems that George Carlin's 'favorite' first name for males is Taaaaahhd!) Two college students also enrolled earlier in a Professor Malley class are Michael Peña as Ernest Rodriguez and Derek Luke as Arian Finch (Harper Lee is NOT amused!). These two decide to leave the university and enlist in the military for combat in the Middle East. They feel it's a way to make a difference with their lives. Professor Malley advises all his students to make a difference with their lives, but he's unhappy that the two promising men make the decision to join up.

Andrew Garfield Michael Peña Derek Luke

Andrew Garfield

Michael Peña

Derek Luke

"Lions" is constructed in the wake of "Crash," and "Babel." Early on, three threads are used almost in real time (a la "24") that show Redford giving the what-for to the smart, lazy student who shows great potential and Streep and Cruise locked up in the Senator's office as he gives her a scoop on a new military plan just begun by the U.S. in Afghanistan. The young men who were students in Professor Malley's poly sci class (shown in flashback) are depicted in peril in thread number three after falling into snow on an Afghan mountaintop from an U.S. Army chopper under automatic weapons fire. Taliban rebels are breathing down the necks of the wounded Americans as they wait to be evacuated by their unit. Suspense here in this thread seems to stall and suspend "Lions for Lambs."

The picture is talky too; not in the Roaring Twenties vernacular but what all of us could call: verbosity. "Lions" also has a shorter than usual running time. That was a smart move on the part of director Redford. But lacing the action with the two parallel speech scenes still doesn't give "Lions for Lambs" much forward motion.

Redford, Streep and the two soldiers/students (one black, the other Latino) are cast as the good guys. The bad guys are Cruise as the neoconservative senator and Garfield who plays the brilliant and privileged slacker taking the dressing down from Redford's character. Redford and Streep are good. Cruise gives one of his better turns.

Both political sides of the many debates in the film are written into dialogue (by Sacramentan, Mark Carnahan) that holds biting questions and answers. Here's an example. Cruise to Streep on WHY? the invasion of Iraq: "How long will you keep asking that question?" Streep's response: "Till we get the answer."

Cruise's character also chastises Streep's journalist persona for how her news network supported the Administration in the run up to the Iraqi invasion, as well as its apparent penchant for infotainment instead of actual news stories that inform and affect an open society.

Another brusque chat occurs when Janine returns to her newsroom from Senator Irving's office. She tells her disconcerted editor that she's not going to report the story. Six years on, Janine feels she's being used by the Senator in order to persuade viewers to his political ends. Janine believes what she would report out from their meet up is less news than propaganda. Her boss puts a chill in Janine. He reminds her about how much it's costing Janine to cover expenses for the 24/7 care her elderly mother requires. Does that have familiar ring to anyone?

Several sharp exchanges between conservative and liberal students are also seen in Malley's poly sci class.

I would bet "Lions for Lambs" will be preaching to the choir with its protestations regarding the fix we're in these days in the Middle East and other pressing domestic and global imperatives. The film makes important points while giving time for polemic pushback. Too bad those who need to see it won't or will try to diminish its intent whether they see it or not.

Part of Hollywood is filling the gap mainstream media have shrugged with a series of films that has recently addressed 'too hot to handle' issues for cable and broadcast. Public radio and television are sole outlets that must abide by the Fairness Doctrine. This gives NPR and PBS a more moderate tone which in turn gives voice to fringe perspectives that declare both networks are too conservative or too liberal. A downside for being moderate, I guess.

It may sound cheesy for someone to remind us that the public airways belong to the people of the U.S., according the Communication Act of 1934. And it may seem cheesier still to reiterate that a democracy is best served by informed voters, not a splintered and angry crowd of citizens who only want 'news' that each side wants to hear while boosting ratings for media owners who desire to grow their audiences more than inform it. I'd also add that journalism is not the same as entertainment designed to play off opposing team loyalties of sports fans. I don't think there's one news TV talk show that works harder to inform its viewers than rile them. Or maybe I should say, O'Rile them.

"Lions for Lambs" doesn't roar as much as it should but then again neither is there anything sheepish about what it's trying to say.


Opens nationally Nov. 9.
Official "Lions for Lambs" website.
Gary Chew can be reached at garychew@comcast.net
Copyright © 2007, Gary Chew. All rights reserved.

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