Lions for Lamb: Robert Redford’s Political Melodrama

Unfolding in real time, “Lions for Lambs” uses the behind-closed-doors events of a single day to connect the dots and reveal how an ambitious power broker making bold moves in Washington, a broadcast journalist chasing a hot story under intense pressure, and two brave soldiers sent on a secret mission are all connected to one young man on the precipice of understanding the real power of freedom, belief and commitment.

The story takes place on three tense and emotional fronts, each with considerable personal stakes. In a Congressional office, Presidential hopeful Senator Jasper Irving (Tom Cruise) is about to give a bombshell of a story about a new war strategy to a probing TV journalist (Meryl Streep), as the two carry out a fierce cat-and-mouse game of wit, charm and evasion. At a West Coast University, a once idealistic professor, Dr. Malley (Robert Redford) confronts a privileged but blas student (Andrew Garfield) in need of fire and in danger of never fulfilling his enormous potential. Meanwhile, across the globe, in the heat of battle in Afghanistan, two of Dr. Malleys former students, Arian (Derek Luke) and Ernest (Michael Pea), lay bare the debates and arguments of mentors and politicians in a fight for sheer survival.

Asking the Audience to Participate

Redford emphasizes that while “Lions for Lambs” traverses current events, its moving themes dig much deeper and the film is not a war drama by any means. Rather, it is a human drama, which dares to ask the audience to question, urging them to participate more fully in their own fates as well as that of the country. In the end, the questions raised by the three stories in the film go to the audience: What would you do How do you feel about this explains Redford.

Redford has always been drawn to emotional stories about the fabric of American life, stories about common people engaged in and touched by the broader issues that face our youthful, democratic nation. It is this thread, which has been woven through the entirety of his diverse career, as screen star, director, and champion of the independent filmmaking movement that drew him to a script by a relatively unknown, young writer named Matthew Michael Carnahan.

Although he hasnt directed a film in seven years, when the screenplay crossed his desk, it immediately struck a nerve, which Redford considers a vital criterion. It came out of the blue, Redford says of Carnahans script. I was surprised by it because it was political and theres so much commercial insecurity about films these days that it seems that only the ones that are safe get made. The ones that are more risky in nature, that maybe make you think or wonder, are harder to come by. And yet, those are the films Ive always enjoyed making.

As a director, Redford has previously explored the turmoil within American families in the Oscar-winning Ordinary People; the temptations of our television culture in the award-winning Quiz Show; and the vital connections between landscape, nature and the American soul in such films as The Milagro Beanfiled War, A River Runs Through It and The Horse Whisperer. He has also made an indelible mark on American filmmaking with his founding of the Sundance Institute, Sundance Film Festival, and Sundance Channel, which together have nurtured a fresh generation of young filmmakers bringing bold, untold stories to the fore.

Taking Risks

Risk certainly wasnt going to stop Redford. If anything, it would serve as inspiration. But “Lions for Lambs” was not just about taking chances for Redford–he also was drawn to the idea of sparking real thought, inciting debate and invigorating young audiences not used to seeing such big issues tackled in an entertainment about college-age characters. I hoped that this film would provoke audiences to contemplate where we are in this country and how we got here, says Redford. To me, its a story about much more than the issues that are happening right now. Its really about the deeper factors that lie behind the issues, and how they are experienced on a personal level by real people. I think its a film about personal responsibility, about young people accepting the role they play in shaping the future, and about how we each deal with our choices in life to try to make this a better world.

Redford was compelled by the taut storytelling and considerable artistic challenges. Im not interested in political films for historys sake. There had to be a character-driven story, as there was, for example, with All The Presidents Men. What I liked is that everybody in the film’s three stories has a personal interest of their own and sometimes they dont co-exist very well, he says. You also have three stories, two of which take place in offices, and the challenge is how do you make this dramatic and cinematic The more I thought about it, the more challenging it became and the more I became attracted to the challenge.

Not a Propaganda Film

Redfords films have always centered on fundamental, even populist, American themes, largely because he has such strong feelings about the country he loves and those are clearly on display in “Lions for Lambs.” There was a melancholia in this story for me, Redford says, because how could you not be sad if you love this country and grew up with ideals about democracy and freedom of speech and youve seen that devastated But he also adds: I would never want to do something that was abject propaganda. There are a lot of different points of view and you have to respect all of them. I wanted to let the audience have a democratic reaction to each of these stories.

Tom Cruise

The final pull for Redford was the fact that Tom Cruise had already expressed interest in coming on board, not only to take the role of the slick yet impassioned Senator Irving, but also to make the film with his partner Paula Wagner, marking their first project in the renaissance of United Artists. And there was word that Meryl Streep also had the script in her hands. I dont think the film would have been made were it not for Tom, says Redford. The idea of Tom playing a Senator was so different and intriguing, it really got me interested. Then I called Meryl and said Im interested in this, how about you and she said If you do it, Ill do it and thats how it came together so quickly.

While Janine Roth and Senator Irving parry back and forth in Washington, a different kind of duel is taking place in a college professors office on the opposite coast. Here, in scenes that form the heart of the film, the history teacher Dr. Malley confronts a student he thinks has what it takes to make a difference if only he could find a reason within to truly take a stand.

Playing the Professor

From the minute he first read the screenplay, Redford saw himself playing Dr. Malley, in part because he has always been fascinated by educators and education, as well as giving new generations a chance to be heard an aspect of Redfords own character which led to the founding of the Sundance Film Festival. He also saw Malley as perhaps part of a tragically dying breed, a lonely maverick, which moved him. Hes kind of at the end of his rope, says Redford. Hes a teacher who believes that education is such an important tool for democratic strength and growth, yet he also sees his whole lifes commitment to pushing for that evaporating. This one student, Todd, becomes symbolic in that regard. Here is a student with enormous potential who seems to be wasting that potential in favor of the easy life–and for Malley, its almost a last-ditch effort to push this kid against the wall to confront that decision.

Why Should I Get Involved

Malleys conversation with Todd cuts to the core of one of the films most vital and thought-provoking themes. Dr. Malley has seen young people drifting towards apathy and cynicism over the years, kids saying why should I get involved, why shouldnt I seek the easy, good life Theres a feeling that its ridiculous to get involved in a system thats so broken. And Malley sees in Todd someone whos certainly equipped to just have the good life if he wants to do that but hes also someone who could step up and try something more risky.

Casting a Brit to Play American Student

To play Todd, the laid-back yet gifted college student who at first tries to dodge Dr. Malley, then begins to open up to him, Redford cast an exciting newcomer: Andrew Garfield, a British stage actor with an American father who also stars in this Falls The Other Boleyn Girl. Redford notes that Garfield came in as a true longshot, not least of all because he hails from England and never had an American university experience. He wasnt American so the odds were against him, but he was so clever and smart I really thought hed be the right kind of person for my character to duel with, the director explains. He was a real find and, on a personal level, a lot of fun to work with.

But Garfield definitely was electrified by the intense back-and-forth repartee that emerges when Todd is confronted by Dr. Malley, and an extraordinary conversation about what really counts in life ensues. Todd really gets jolted and shaken by Dr. Malley, he observes. He has this huge challenge put in front of him because this guys kind of delving into his soul and saying look, youre not doing anything with the gifts that have been given to you, and hes forced to look at himself in a much deeper way than he ever has. I think a door is opened for Todd that he wanted to remain shut because he knows as soon as it opens, hes going to be forced to take a stand.

Garfield thinks that what happens in that short space of time in Dr. Malleys office will reverberate throughout Todds life in ways he could never have previously imagined. Malleys really planting seeds, sums up Garfield. Hes saying keep aware, keep reading the paper, keep getting angry, and keep being in the world. Hes not giving Todd any easy answers, hes just saying dont forget that you have all this potential to use in your own way.

The Soldiers

The film’s multiple strands are woven into a heartbreaking climax as two devoted young soldiers and best friends struggle for survival on a remote mountain ridge far from the films heady conversations. Arian and Ernest, two remarkable former students of Dr. Malley, have been sent on a secret mission in an effort to turn the tide in the war in Central Asia and are ready to sacrifice everything for their country and each other. Their actions and heroism lay bare the inescapable human side of the debates that occupy those in more powerful positions.

From Tough Neighborhoods

In casting Arian and Ernest, Redford hoped to find actors who could intimately understand where these two young men have come from and how hard they have worked to achieve their lifes dreams. You really had to feel they are each from tough neighborhoods which they had risen out of through achievement, says the director. Along with their academic achievements and sophistication, they had to still have the some of that rough-and-tumble attitude from the ghetto.

Redford thus chose Derek Luke and Michael Pea, two rising young stars who each hail from underprivileged backgrounds but have the considerable acting chops to pull off portraying a unique friendship in a moment of dire straits. To me the most interesting thing about Derek and Michael was their emotional depth, says Redford. Theyre both strong individuals and they also have a real personal dignity and sense of humanity that was important.