If propaganda is simply something hell-bent on getting the old ideological juices flowing, then Lions for Lambs fits the bill. What's less certain is just what the movie is selling.
Lions for Lambs pushes all the hottest hot buttons, from Iraq and Afghanistan to the whole global-war-on-terrorism ball o' wax, but, curiously enough, nobody is freaking out (so far, anyway). Neocons who have previewed the movie seem to be more or less OK with it, as do spokespersons from the Democratic camp. Even Anne Coulter hasn't sunk her fangs into the film's soft flesh, although that's likely to change at the first whiff of blood.
So how is it that a high-profile project like Lions for Lambs — which features the iconic, award-winning mugs of Tom Cruise, Robert Redford and Meryl Streep, and is the first film Redford's directed in seven years — manages to weigh in on some of the most sensitive issues of our times without pissing off every blowhard on the block? Can it really be that Redford's film is such a super-profound purveyor of truthiness that its message simply cannot be denied?
Not by a long shot, I fear. More likely, the real reason behind the deafening silence is that Lions for Lambs is simply too boring to get upset over.
Relentlessly wordy and almost painfully static, Lions for Lambs is essentially a series of dialogues — or, more plainly put, a collection of scenes in which pairs of people sit in various rooms, talking. The talk mostly takes the form of one-on-one debates on contemporary issues and personal ethics; the plot is minimal to the point of nothingness, and the only sense of something happening comes from our anticipation that connections may eventually be revealed linking the various talking heads. Redford and screenwriter Matthew Michael Carnahan (The Kingdom) comply by eventually allowing their three separate scenarios to congeal as a topically spun version of one of those circular narratives belonging to the Crash/Babel axis of evil.
The film's three loosely linked scenarios basically amount to conversations that all take place in the course of a single day. In the first of them, an up-and-coming Republican Senator (Cruise) grants an exclusive interview to a seasoned and somewhat suspicious journalist (Streep). The second scenario (they're really too slight to be called "stories") depicts two American soldiers (Michael Pena and Derek Luke) stranded on a snowy mountaintop in Afghanistan as hostile forces lurk in the distance. The third segment features a politically minded college professor (Redford) trying to get a bright but terminally cynical student (Todd Hayes) to move beyond bitching and become engaged with the world.
The first and third of these mini-stories (not un-coincidentally, the ones featuring Lions for Lambs's biggest stars) are the meat of the movie, where all the big ideas are introduced and the details endlessly debated. The stranded soldiers scenario, less talky than the rest of the film but still miles away from anyone's notion of an action flick, functions rather transparently as a transition device allowing the movie to segue between its two central conversations. It probably won't come as much of a surprise that the soldiers' segment, which initially appears to be the slightest of the movie's three pieces, is eventually revealed as the glue that binds all the elements together.
Spread out over 70-some minutes of screen time, the Cruise-Streep exchange is the most interesting of the segments and the closest Lions for Lambs comes to actual entertainment. Senator Jasper Irving might just be the ultimate Tom Cruise role — a smart, silky-smooth politician with a gleaming smile, $1,000 haircut and a master plan for a better world. (He could be John Edwards after Scientology has its way with him.)
One of those compassionate conservatives we keep hearing about, Jasper freely tosses around buzz words like "evil" and "global terrorism" (code phrases that make uttering "Islam" unnecessary), but he also possesses a diploma from Harvard and what appears to be a bona fide conscience.
It's that innate sense of right and wrong that allows Jasper's interviewer, Janine Roth (Streep), to give the guy the benefit of the doubt as he outlines what he claims to be a bold new plan for dealing with Afghanistan (and, by extension, Iraq and Iran). Roth leans as far left as Jasper skews right, but the senator strikes her as a straight shooter who openly admits his party's past mistakes, and so the reporter does her best to suspend disbelief as she dutifully records the politician's vision for victory — a new vision she fears is just the old vision dressed up in new rhetoric.
The segment featuring Redford rambles on even longer than the Cruise-Streep exchange, and allows the director-star to cast himself in the vaguely messianic role of a self-described moral recruiter who gets to periodically exclaim Oscar-ready lines like, "Rome is burning!" That particular chunk of carpet-chewing is delivered to a single student, but the movie's all-too-clear implication is that we — every last man, woman and child in the audience — are all to some extent fiddling while Rome burns, and that the professional dickheads in Washington thrive on our enormous, collective wellsprings of apathy.
This, of course, is all part of the movie's big message, and the main reason that neither Hillary nor Rudy is likely to get too riled up over Lions for Lambs. Ultimately, the movie says nothing more controversial than "Bush screwed up" and "Get involved" — two all-purpose slogans for any party in this election year — and even these innocuously noble assessments are delivered in such a way that allows the film to have its cake and eat it, too. Your mileage may vary, but I nearly lost lunch when Redford's character holds up a pair of former students turned soldiers as shining examples of American manhood, agonizing that he did everything he could to stop them from going to war but "revered the reasons that they went."
It's pretty clear that the movie's heart is in the right (which is to say "left") place, but that only makes it all the more annoying as Lions for Lambs pontificates from both sides of its mouth. The filmmakers' passion feels genuine, but it's funneled into something as safe as any politician's prepared statement, a lifeless My Dinner with Andre reduced to sound bites from the evening news. Lectures delivered from a movie screen don't have to be painful, as An Inconvenient Truth recently demonstrated, but only if they generate a little heat and spit. Lions for Lambs is strictly Lock Box-era Gore.