Robert Redford’s been sneakily hiding his outspoken liberalism beneath the ultimate smooth-talking veneer of a country gent for nigh on 50 years now. O.K so maybe an argument could be created for it creeping out in Spy Game or All The President’s Men but can anyone really find the political message in Charlotte’s Web or The Horse Whisperer? Anyone? No? In which case be directed to Lions for Lambs, Redford’s seventh directorial offering and the first for seven years since he exposed us to the mushy sentimentalism of The Legend of Bagger Vance. It is also probably the most overt slice of liberal fist-shaking in the general direction of the American Government you’ll see this year or possibly any other.
In its structure Lions for Lambs resembles an art-house experiment, focussing on three different duologues and the relationships between them. Redford takes one of the six main roles for himself as Professor Stephen Malley who recounts the story of two of his students (Michael Pena and Derek Luke) to disaffected current student Todd Hayes (Andrew Garfield). Meanwhile Tom Cruise’s slimy senator Jasper Irving attempts to sell a new military strategy in Afghanistan to journalist Janine Roth (Meryl Streep). At the other end of this policy, on the front line in Afghanistan, are Malley’s former students who after graduating decided the best way to make a difference was join the army.
In its conception the film sounds innovative but perhaps a little ambitious. In its production it appears innovative but slightly annoying. Characters are set up with resolute ideals only to have them played with by their partner in the duologue in a way which hardly respects the original degree to which backed an idea or a cause. Streep and Cruise’s discussion is definitely the most guilty of this while Pena and Luke’s is by far the weakest in general, leaving their development to Redford’s reminiscing professor.
Ironic then that ultimately Streep and Cruise’s conversation is by far the most engaging with snappy scripting from Matthew Michael Carnahan ensuring Senator Irving’s assertions and manipulations are only answered by cleverer questions and mis-readings by Streep’s closet liberal journalist. In Redford’s own segment he merely goes through the motions with a character who freely admits he has seen better days. Again, strange therefore that he apparently has such an effect on un-motivated Todd.
The political heart of the film is well and truly worn proudly on its sleeve. The conclusion of each story preaches to the ability of people to change and develop and perhaps therefore provide hope for the future of Redford’s America. If you can scrape past the political preaching and ignore the poor Afghanistan sets, which look like they were filmed in a small closet somewhere, then there’s a decent film here with some passable acting from its stars. Cruise in particular should at least be given a cursory nod, attacking a character outside of his usual gamut in the smooth-talking, manipulative, Irving. To some, this will be too hard to do and the fact that the film shouts its message from the rafters doesn’t help. However, at leas the message is one worth hearing, a fact definitely not ignored by a film worth seeing.