Lions for Lambs: Directed by Redford, Starring Tom Cruise and Meryl Streep

Robert Redford’s first film as a director in seven years, Lions for Lambs is his most overtly political drama, an intelligent feature that wears its political agenda on its sleeves but doesn’t convince dramatically or artistically.

There is not doubt that Redford and its estimable cast, headed by Tom Cruise and Meryl Streep, believe in the moral of their work, a wake-up call for American citizens to take up a stand in the dismal current foreign affairs, specifically the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. As a message-oriented feature, Lions for Lambs is too verbose, consisting of a series of conversations that could have just as easily been seen on a theatrical stage.

Though, the movie is careful enough to voice different point of views, ultimately, it comes across as anti-Bush platform and would have been much more effective had it been made two or three years ago.

Receiving its world premiere at the London Film Festival, and playing at Rome Film Festival and AFI Festival (as opening night), “Lions for Lambs” marks the first production of the new United Artists, under the management of star Tom Cruise and his long-time partner Paula Wagner.

One of the most interesting elements of this project is the rather left-wing screenplay by Matthew Michael Carnahan, the same scribe who wrote the right-wing, gung-ho script for the political actioner-thriller The Kingdom, an arrogant platform about the American know-how in the war on terrorism. It may be a coincidence, but there is another link between the two pictures: Peter Berg, who helmed The Kingdom, plays a crucial (military officer) role in Lions for Lambs. If you combine the ideas of Carnahans two features, youll get almost the entire spectrum of the political agendas that define the current state of American affairs.

That said, Lions for Lambs is not without merits, and could be used as an effective educational tool in high-schools and colleges to incite debate about the state of the union, how American politicians, professors, journalists, and ordinary people have dropped their political engagement and sunk into cynicism and apathy, thus neglecting their basic duties and responsibilities as citizens in a young democratic society based on freedom of speech and organization.

The film offers glimpses into the fabric of basic American institutions, such as the mass media and journalism, politics and education, and how they operate behind closed doors. Unfolding in more or less real time, the tale spans a single day, in which crucial decisions are made by an ambitious politician makings a bold military decision in Washington D.C., a broadcast journalist chasing a hot story under intense pressure, a weary political science professor and his bright but lazy student, and two brave soldiers sent on a secret mission to Afghanistan.

Let me be more specific. Carnahans saga 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 sensational story about a new war strategy in Afghanistan to a presumably probing TV journalist Janine Roth (Meryl Streep). We witness how the two pros engage in a fierce game of wit and evasion. Confined to a single set, and only interrupted by several calls, which allows Roth to examine docus and photos in Irvings office, the conversation is smart and alert, but doesnt give either thespian much opportunity to act.

We learn that once upon a time, Roth, who is a generation older than Irving, was instrumental in promoting the career of the then young and promising Irving. However, she’s now having serious doubts about her job performance, commitment level, and priorities, leading to a later confrontation with her editor, who’s mostly interested in the rating of her show.

Cut to a West Coast University, a once idealistic sixtysomething professor, Dr. Malley (Robert Redford) confronts a privileged but blas student (Andrew Garfield) in need of fire and in danger of never fulfilling his potential without his encouragement. Disenchanted with his own publishing career and emotionally burnt of teaching, Malley puts all his cards on the table in advocating direct political engagement. Theres a personal note here, and we get the impression that the student reminds Malley of his own youthful and idealistic days.

Meanwhile, 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 their mentors and politicians, fighting for their sheer survival. It’s significant, I think, that Howard, the bright student, is a WASP (actually played by a British actor, Kevin Dunn) and that the two soldiers are a Latino and a black man, pretty much reflecting the demographics of the military.

Through flashbacks, we see the two students giving a presentation in Malleys class, which obviously had an impact on their choice to engage. Of all the sequences in the film, this is the only one thats cinematic for the sheer fact that its nocturnal and is set outdoors, allowing ace lenser Philippe Rousselot to exercise his considerable skills.

Production values are modest, perhaps a reflection of the moderate budget (rumored to be around $35 million) and quick shoot. The designers have gone out of their way to give each sequence a different look, but Redford’s customary attention to detail, evident in his better pictures (“Ordinary People,” Quiz Show”) is missing here. Was he intimidated by the perceived level of discourse, or perhaps just thought that he should service the material with as little directorial “interference” as possible.

As a result, the editing falls into a repetitive pattern of conventional crosscutting among the sequences. The film comes to life and gathers emotional momentum in the last scene, in which Janine voices her protests to her editor and then walks out. Taking a taxicab, she rides through the national monuments and cemeteries of Washington D.S.

Redford and his team should get credit for putting themselves on the line at a time where most Hollywoods explicitly political films are thrillers (Rendition), actioners (The Kingdom), or family mysteries and melodramas (In the Valley of Elah). But despite honorable intent and courage, Lions for Lambs is a movie, and as such should be evaluated not only in thematic terms, but also in dramatic and artistic ones.

Unfortunately, limited by the nature of the text and the way its conceived and written, Redford has made a dull, preachy movie that largely consists of a series of interrelated verbose speeches and patriotic lectures, better suited for print media and the theater than as big-screen entertainment.

A case could be made that the more overt the politics and message of a Redford-directed film, the less interesting it is as an art, as was clearly the case with “The Milagro Beanfield War” (1988), about a rugged individualist’s fight against greedy land developers, and “The Horse Whisperer” (1998).


Dr. Stephen Malley – Robert Redford
Janine Roth – Meryl Streep
Sen. Jasper Irving – Tom Cruise
Ernest Rodriguez – Michael Pena
Todd Hayes – Andrew Garfield
Wirey Pink – Peter Berg
Howard – Kevin Dunn
Arian Finch – Derek Luke


An MGM release of a United Artists presentation of a Wildwood Enterprises, Brat Na Pont Prods., Andell Entertainment production.
Produced by Robert Redford, Matthew Michael Carnahan, Andrew Hauptman, Tracy Falco.
Executive producer: Daniel Lupi.
Directed by Robert Redford.
Screenplay, Matthew Michael Carnahan.
Camera: Philippe Rousselot.
Editor: Joe Hutshing; additional editing, Paul Hirsch.
Music: Mark Isham.
Production designer: Jan Roelfs.
Art director: Francois Audouy.
Costume designer: Mary Zophres.
Sound: Petur Hliddal, Richard Hymns.
Sound designer: Frank Eulner.
Visual effects supervisor: Joseph Grossberg.

MPAA Rating: R.
Running time: 90 Minutes.