Lions for Lambs
Produced and distributed by United Artists
Directed by Robert Redford
Written by Matthew Michael Carnahan

Bulletin: The neocon pundits are going to war!  Not to Iraq or Afghanistan, though.  No, they’re landing in our local movie theaters and pounding away at all those treasonous antiwar movies being thrust on the unsuspecting public.

It’s a bitter battle, but someone has to wage it.  The neocons have taken aim at In the Valley of Elah, Rendition, Redacted, and Lions for Lambs.  Curiously, however, none of our patriotic pro-war commentators seems ready to go mano a mano with Charles Ferguson’s documentary on the Iraq war, No End in Sight.  Brave as they are, they don’t seem to have the stomach for Ferguson’s precision firepower.  But they feel free to lob grenades at the other, weaker films, especially Lions for Lambs.  Even before it opened, Bill O’Reilly was calling it a “bomb” and “career suicide” for its director, Robert Redford.  Here is Glenn Beck of CNN Headline News discussing Lions with Michael Medved.  He begins by wittily observing that the film couldn’t have been worse if “a Scientologist, an alien Scientologist, showed up in the middle of it to jump up and down on Oprah’s sofa.”  Get it?  Tom Cruise, one of the film’s stars and also its producer, made a fool of himself a couple of years ago acrobatically declaring his love for Katie Holmes on Winfrey’s show.  It follows that his films must be equally nutty.  A grinning Medved heartily agrees.  “People hated this film,” he adds, chortling that watching it is “like . . . being lectured at by condescending, supercilious, patronizing losers.”  Note the adjectival pile up; it is typical neocon ordnance.  No matter how mild the offense, shoot the works.  Meanwhile on FOX, a blonde newskewpie breathlessly informs us that, like all the other antiwar films, Lions is “bombing all over the world,” and the public is rejecting it.  Then she brings on someone named Mark Williams, a West Coast talk-show host.  Mr. Williams tells us “this movie is such a bomb it should be called Redford’s IED.  It’s another X-rated piece of political porn nobody needs to be bothered with.”  Wow!  That’s harsh.  But it’s John Podhoretz in the Weekly Standard who wins the gold star with his ad hominem attack on Redford.  It is redolent of the finest neocon bouquet, that unmistakable whiff of ordure.  After sarcastically thanking Redford for “deigning to slalom down from his pristine Utah mountaintop to compel us” to think about the Iraq war, he continues,

What more must [Redford] give to the nation and the world to whom he has given so much, particularly by jumping off a cliff shouting “S–t” in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid?  Well, the times demanded it of him, and Robert Redford has obeyed the urgent summons.

So Redford lives in Utah, he skis, and he once said “sh-t” on screen 40 years ago.  Clearly, he’s unqualified to comment on American foreign policy.  Furthermore, Podhoretz reminds us, Redford made a really bad movie entitled The Legend of Bagger Vance a few years ago.  It follows as the day does the night that he has never done anything worthwhile, and, therefore, Lions is trash.

Podhoretz disdains exercising his critical talents on the film as though he’d be wasting his precious time to examine its argument.  It’s no good, and that’s that.

Podhoretz, like others in his camp—notably, his old man, Norman—are past masters at this kind of smear attack.  When they disagree with someone, they seek to undermine his character or intellect—or, preferably, both.  The point is to destroy the other guy’s reputation regardless of what he has achieved.  It’s as if Redford’s undeniable successes—Down Hill Racer, The Candidate, and Quiz Show, to name three—never happened.  His creation of the Sundance Institute to support independent film production?  Who cares!

Why does Redford deserve such obloquy?  He disagrees with the neoconservative dogma on the Middle East.  Worse, there is a line in his film that breaks the current rules of American political discourse.  In his role as Stephen Malley, a professor of political science at an unnamed California university, Redford speaks disparagingly of those who campaigned for the United States to invade Iraq.  They include what he calls the neoconservative ideologues who were motivated principally by concern for Israel’s security and have, for the same reason, been urging the Bush administration to invade Iran and Syria.  By saying this on screen, Redford and his screenwriter, Matthew Michael Carnahan, have made themselves targets.   The Podhoretz family and its camp followers have taken aim, but this time, it’s going to backfire.  Redford has established himself as a filmmaker of vision and has cultivated reserves of good will throughout his profession and his audience.  He may not be our greatest actor or a consistently successful director, but he has made himself a force within his industry, and there are many who will rise to his defense, should he continue to be kicked around by the likes of O’Reilly, Beck, and Podhoretz.

All this said, I wish I could report that Lions is a great film.  It’s not.  Instead, it’s an odd assemblage of talking points delivered by actors who often look uncomfortable in their didactic roles.  Redford seems to have been so impatient to deliver his message that he forgot he was making a narrative film.

He’s tried to give the film some dynamism by intercutting three conversations taking place at the same time in three different locations, each addressing the war in its own way.  First, there is Meryl Streep and Tom Cruise.  Streep plays Janine Roth, a reporter who is being flattered and cajoled by Cruise playing Sen. Jasper Irving, a neoconservative hunk with presidential ambitions.  Irving has called Roth to his office to give her a scoop: He has persuaded the president and the Pentagon to launch a new initiative in Afghanistan that will root out the Taliban and Al Qaeda at once.  The second conversation takes place between Professor Malley and a slacker student who has been cutting his class.  The third takes place on a mountainside in Afghanistan where two of Malley’s former students—one, an African-American; the other, a Mexican-American—find themselves pinned down by a band of Taliban fighters.

Redford segues back and forth among these scenes, linking them both by the issues they address and by the constant references to passing time.  Senator Irving has granted Janine an hour to interview him; Malley’s consultation with his student won’t exceed his office hour.  And the young men in Afghanistan are waiting for a rescue helicopter that will take about an hour to reach them.  Time is running out, and decisions must be made—now.

Once the montage is set in motion, the separate conversations, stilted as they are, begin to gain momentum.  Their contrapuntal urgency is undeniable: When Irving explains that his strategic initiative in Afghanistan calls for U.S. Special Forces to penetrate Taliban territories in small numbers, Janine recognizes his plan as another version of the one Gen. Creighton Abrams deployed in Vietnam.  She accuses Jasper of using the soldiers as bait.  He dismisses the accusation with his patented Cruise smile and declares that America must act as the ancient Romans did.  We must do “whatever it takes” to “build a constant presence” around the globe, especially inside the Muslim world.  Streep leaves her interview shaken.  She is convinced that, should Jasper succeed in his bid for the White House, he will not refrain from using nuclear weapons.  She plans to reveal her surmise in her article, until her editor warns her that, if she does so, she may jeopardize her career.

Meanwhile, Redford’s professor tries to rekindle his bright but disengaged student’s interest in his declared major, political science.  The student, however, has concluded that politics is mostly a sham run by elected officials who are fraudulent “sh-ts,” principally committed to their own interests and to those of their corporate sponsors.  Accordingly, he has decided that the only rational thing to do is to forget about public service and devote himself to amassing enough wealth to live a comfortable life.  Malley patiently makes the case that he will not find such apathy satisfying.  Borrowing the boy’s vulgarity, he points out that “those pieces of sh-t bank on your willful ignorance.  Rome is burning, son.”  He then tells him of his former students who enlisted in the Army because they thought that, as returning veterans, they would have the clout to change things despite their minority identities.  Malley regrets having failed to talk them out of this quixotic notion, but he is nevertheless proud of their willingness to put themselves on the line.

While Malley talks, his former students are taking fire on the Afghan mountaintop as they try to reassure each other they can hold off the Taliban until the rescue helicopter reaches them.  While living out the commitment of which Malley speaks, they’re suffering the consequences of Irving’s hare-brained war strategy and Janine’s hesitancy to report the truth.  It’s all too familiar.

The film’s title is drawn from a letter supposedly written by a German general during World War I.  Impressed by the British soldiers’ determination and disgusted by what he took to be the incompetence and cowardice of their commanders, he wrote, “Nowhere else have I seen such lions led by such lambs.”  Some commentators have raised doubts about the authenticity of the letter, but that is beside the point.  The epigram is aimed directly at the craven hearts of warrior journalists such as Podhoretz and O’Reilly, stay-at-home lambs content that others should risk their lives roaring for their cause.

This, of course, is why the intellectuals at FOX News and the Weekly Standard have been trying so bravely to kill this film, telling us ceaselessly in language that seems centrally dictated that it is a “colossal” failure, a “bomb,” and the public is “rejecting” it.

And this is precisely why you should see Redford’s film.  It is an opportunity to stick it to the nattering neocons—the film’s would-be censors.  It will only cost you the price of the ticket and 88 minutes of your time.  Although its screenplay offers little new, it excels as a résumé of the twisted logic behind our war in Iraq, and the actors’ performances are undeniably impassioned, especially Streep’s and Cruise’s.  Think of seeing it as an investment in the restoration of political sanity.