Lions for Lambs
Dir. Robert Redford
Premiered October 18, 2007
“Oscar Bait” is not as old of an idea as it might seem. Emerging in the final days of the New Hollywood, and reigning supreme by the early 2000s, it’s generally agreed that Academy voters will give awards to movies that do certain things: a late release, a period setting, an A-list cast, tackling an important issue but not so much as to court controversy, bonus points for involving the film industry itself. And because those invited to join the Academy are disproportionately actors, the awards are the only reason Hollywood keeps making melodramas.
Most Oscar Bait films are good-but-not-great; I’d be hard-pressed to find someone whose favorite movie was The English Patient or A Beautiful Mind. But what fascinates me most is failed Oscar Bait– Pay It Forward, Flash of Genius, The Life of David Gale, the ones that try way too hard to be important and prestigious and end up being maudlin and gross. To that ignoble canon I would like to add veteran Oscar darling Robert Redford’s Lions for Lambs.
Contemporary politics has rarely been a welcome presence in film in 2007, but Lions for Lambs is the most out of its depth by virtue of its own self-importance. It tells three stories, all revolving around America’s forgotten war in Afghanistan: First, Journalist Janine Roth (Meryl Streep) interviews Republican Senator Jasper Irving (Tom Cruise), a favorite for the upcoming presidential race. Irving is the point man on a new strategy in Iraq that has unfortunate echoes of Vietnam.
Meanwhile, at “A California University,” Political science professor Stephen Malley (Robert Redford) invites promising underacheiver Todd Hayes (Andrew Garfield) for a chat about Todd’s future. Todd’s interest in politics is waning, but Malley will give him a solid B grade if Todd’s enthusiasm can just be rekindled. Malley does this by telling the story of his previous students Ernest and Arian (Michael Peña and Derek Luke), whose sense of duty for collective participation and change was so great that they enlisted in the army and ended up serving in Afghanistan. At the same time, Ernest and Arian are actually in the field, and stranded on the side of a mountain controlled by the Taliban.
Lions for Lambs is uncommonly short at 88 minutes, and about a third in the way in I realized that this was going to be the entire film: Roth bickers with Irving over partisan politics, Malley lectures Hayes (and by extension us) about young peoples’ apathy– ironic at a time when youth voter participation was surging– and Ernest and Arian writhe around in the snow in the vain hope that their predicament carries any weight whatsoever; all in real time.
Many choices in the film’s production are perplexing: the choice to label all new locations, even placing a title card reading “Office of Professor Stephen Malley” over a sign on the door that says the same thing; literally all of the dialogue sounds painfully rushed. But it’s Matthew Michael Carnahan’s script that bears the most responsibility. For a movie about government, education, and the military, Carnahan seems to know nothing about any of the above. Redford as Malley acts more like a high school guidance counselor than any professor in his attempts to micromanage and cajole his students. He also tells Todd that he’s more privileged than Ernest and Arian; stating that they had violent, educationally impoverished upbringings on no evidence except that they are non-white. Other students, presented in flashback, argue with each other in class one-at-a-time, in a manner that could only happen if scripted. Todd, for his part, constantly calls Malley “Doc.”
Irving inexplicably gets live updates on his Afghanistan strategy; he also chides the media for being too critical, then rails against it for being blindly jingoistic. His strategy involves the threat of invading Iran, something which is heavily emphasized in the beginning of the film but never again. This attempt to throw every conceivable partisan talking point at the wall results in nonsensical speeches peppered with name-drops of recent historical events, somehow comparing 9/11, Rwanda, and Somalia, and even referencing the POW-MIA mythos. In response, Janine raves like a crazy person about Irving’s perceived eagerness to start nuclear war because he says he’ll do “whatever it takes” to take down the enemy– surely not a phrase any politician has said before without meaning nukes.
Lions for Lambs is far from the worst or most irritating prestige film of this year– though it was deservedly overlooked by the academy and trashed by critics– but it perfectly captures the intense and misguided desire by the film industry, particularly during the Bush years, to say something important without actually having anything to say; a $35,000,000 letter to the editor.
Not even Meryl Streep can quote the famous Who lyric “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss” without sounding like your washed-up ’70s activist aunt. Everyone please stop doing this.
Signs This Was Made in 2007
The end of the film has a mild but sudden preoccupation with celebrity gossip taking precedence over reports on the war– something that was definitely true in 2005 when the script was presumably written, but far less so in 2007.
Similarly, Todd makes a sudden avalanche of references to lawmakers-turned-convicted criminals Tom DeLay and Mark Foley– both out of office by the time of production.
Soldiers wear those stupid grey pixellated camo uniforms. These were introduced to the US Army under dubious and likely corrupt circumstances circa 2006 with no discernible purpose and became standard even as office wear before getting phased out in the mid-2010s.
How Did It Do?
Lions for Lambs just barely failed to recoup its marketing budget, earning $63.2 million against a $35 million budget. Hollywood in the 2000s was defined by the decline of star power, and with Lions for Lambs, Tom Cruise’s generous tenure as a box-office draw ended. Not that he went away or that his talents were wasted, but it’s notable that the next film in which he appeared, 2008’s terrific Tropic Thunder, omitted his (equally terrific) performance from the marketing campaign.
So too did it become clear that Robert Redford was no longer the storyteller that he’d once been. Although Lions for Lambs remains his most critically reviled effort (27% on RT), his two subsequent films failed to attract much attention at the box office or get more than middling reviews; and although he did not direct it, Redford’s long-championed adaptation of my beloved Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods turned out to be a barely-recognizable vanity project. It’s reached the point where my ex-girlfriend, who watched this with me, has since developed a strong aversion to his entire filmography.
Next Time: American Gangster