Hopefully, Lions for Lambs will be the most topical film ever made. Hopefully. In fifteen years, hopefully it won’t make any sense. It probably will.
As a dramatic narrative, it’s pretty limp. Most of the scenes with the big three are dialogue scenes, written by someone not incompetent but without much gift for it. It’s a play from a non-playwright. As a singularly directed play, the film would make sense. As a film, it really doesn’t. It might be Redford’s direction, which suffers from bad editing (Joe Hutshing does a terrible job with the back and forth, each edit more jarring than the last), but it might also be the lack of distinction. Had Redford done something crazy–something von Trier crazy–it might have worked. Because there’s nothing to Lions for Lambs if one tells it straight. It’s three stories–professor Redford talking to a student (basically about not sitting idly by while Britney Spears passes for news), GOP senator Tom Cruise trying to sell a new Afghanistan strategy to a cable news exec–sorry, reporter–Meryl Streep, and that strategy failing two of Redford’s former students, Michael Peña and Derek Luke on the ground.
The film opens with a broad, forceful propagandist hammer. It’s the kind of thing they should have gotten Noam Chomsky to consult on… if Noam Chomsky consulted on movies and if the producers had an iota of forethought. It slowly and carefully reveals layers and inconsistencies… Army Lieutenant Colonel Peter Berg might believe calculated lies about Iran but he does care about his troops. Berg’s acting in the film, watching Peña and Luke under fire is fantastic–a performance I never thought he’d be capable of performing.
There is a lot of good acting in the film. Streep’s solid, of course. Cruise’s performance will probably go forever unnoticed, but it’s phenomenal. It should have gotten more notice–and would have if only the film had some better direction. Both Peña and Luke are good as well, with Peña turning in yet another of his character performance as lead auditions.
Redford’s pretty lame, but most of the problem is with his “acting” collaborator. Whoever casted Andrew Garfield committed almost as great a film crime as whoever kept Mark Isham’s lousy score. Garfield’s real, real, real bad. His dialogue’s bad too, but his delivery is incompetent. He couldn’t sell teen hair products.
The cast is small, there are only a handful of settings… it should have been a play. A play can be topical and still be a phenomenon. A film has to account for some of the time spent–the time spent making it, the time spent watching it. Lions for Lambs feels like screenwriter Matthew Michael Carnahan got pissed while watching some bullshit CNN newscast, wrote an easy ninety-minute movie (turning Peña and Luke’s story into an entire feature would have been work) and just happened to be in the right place at the right time (Cruise taking over United Artists) to get it made.