Lions for Lambs (review)

Roman Firefighters

How do you solve a problem like America? Where do you even start? Everything — the war, the demagoguery, the blanket repeal of civil liberties, the whole big mess — seems so entrenched and so intertwined that it’s paralyzing. I’m so hopeless these days that things will ever get better, to the point where I’m not sure I can take yet more rehashing of the fiasco.
So that’s where I was when I approached Lions for Lambs. Another movie about the Iraq/Afghanistan clusterfuck and the “war on terror”? There’s been so many of them lately (some of which haven’t been released yet, but that I’ve seen, and been devastated by; I’m thinking of Brian De Palma’s Redacted, particularly), which is perfectly understandable. It’s like we’ve all come to this point at the same time, of waking up a little bit, maybe, from the shellshock of the rush to invasion in 2003 and looking around and saying, Shit, this war is still on? And then comes the impetus to try to make some sense of it.

But sense has been made — many of these movies (In the Valley of Elah, Home of the Brave, the muckraking work of documentarian Robert Greenwald such as Uncovered: The War on Iraq) have helped shape our understanding of how FUBARed the war is. Now the question is: What do we do about it? No movie has even attempted to ask that question, never mind answer it, till this one. Lions for Lambs, it transpires, is not just more kicking around of the ball. It’s the most frank discussion yet about the war and the state of this country I’ve seen at the movies, one that tries to capture the situation realistically and intelligently and without indulging in dogmatic ideology. If it made me both sad and hopeful at the same time, well, that’s because there isn’t going to be an easy answer, and it’s going to take us longer to dig ourselves out than it took us to dig ourselves in.

A generation, maybe. That’s the hard answer that comes out of the triptych of interconnected stories here. All on one morning, at precisely the same hour, TV journalist Janine Roth (Meryl Streep: Rendition, Evening) interviews a hotshot young Republican senator, Jasper Irving (Tom Cruise: Mission: Impossible III, War of the Worlds), about his new initiative to take back the high ground — morally and militarily and practically — in Afghanistan; two young American grunts, Ernest Rodriguez (Michael Peña: Million Dollar Baby, Crash) and Arian Finch (Derek Luke: Catch a Fire, Friday Night Lights), find themselves in the hot middle of Irving’s Afghan minisurge; and California college prof Stephen Malley (Robert Redford [An Unfinished Life, The Clearing], who also directed) tries to wake up the soul and conscience of a promising student, Todd Hayes (Andrew Garfield: Doctor Who), who is squandering his gifts.

There are surprises in how the stories interconnect — some are, perhaps, rather foreseeable, but how they develop is not. What’s important, though, is not so much the drama onscreen — even if it does end up being more riveting than you might imagine it could be, as talky as the movie is — but the ideas it represents. This is one of those movies I was thinking about the other day, one of those “not just a movie” movies: it could jumpstart new dialogue that could get us past that hopeless funk that seems to blanketing so many of us of late. If we let it.

You don’t even need to agree with everything said here to appreciate that there’s something new being said, and that that can be the beginning of a new approach. Cruise’s neocon young Republican is a bit terrifying, in fact — he says things like, “Do you want to win the War on Terror? Yes or no?” which is one of those “So, when did you stop beating your wife?” questions that forces you to accept suppositions that you might not want to accept. The hippie 60s idealism of Redford’s professor might be a tad too optimistic, the cynicism of Garfield’s student a bit too easily altered, the nobility of Peña and Luke’s soldiers a bit too convenient.

But it’s all okay. Because underneath it all, for all its wonkishness and pragmatism, Lions for Lambs is an oddly compassionate and affectionate ode to the muscle of youth, the wisdom of age, and to the possibility of getting both of them — and those of us in the middle — working together to affect change on the deepest levels.

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