With documentaries on the war in Iraq satisfying a need for “on the spot” journalism, Hollywood’s recent stabs at war movies have been long on crowd pleasing and short on message. Actor/director Robert Redford‘s war drama Lions for Lambs puts its money where its mouth is. Maybe that’s why people are having such a hard time with it.
Robert Redford‘s war drama Lions for Lambs makes no attempts to disguise itself. It’s not, for example, a family drama about a fallen soldier, or a sexy spy thriller that takes place in Iraq, or even an action film about oil and terrorism. In fact, the most polarizing thing about Lions for Lambs is its unwillingness to be anything but a film about America at war. Be it loved or hated, Lions represents an old brand of lefty awareness-raising that makes its agenda plain and its (self) criticisms perfectly clear. Ironically it’s just this simplicity of purpose that inspires division. Maybe this brand of “straight talk,” isn’t one audiences are used to, but Redford has a conviction and a plan to bring the film to young audiences. “Fundamentally and in the end,” Redford says, “this film is about the future.”
The story of Lions revolves around the fate of new recruits Ernesto Rodriguez (Michael Peña) and Arian Finch (Derek Luke). While these two soldiers are deployed to a new strategic “point” (far smaller than a base), their former professor Malley (Redford) tells their story to his present student Todd (Andrew Garfield) to caution against apathy. Meanwhile, Republican Senator Jasper Irving (Tom Cruise) exposes his confidential strategy to veteran Journalist Janine Roth (Meryl Streep), even as Irving’s strategy is underway.
Redford lends a loving patriotism to this “head, hands, heart” story. “It’s legitimate,” he insists, “every point of view addressed in this film.” On the theoretical side, Streep and Cruise battle over the loss of political and journalistic integrity. In the spirit of loving concern, professor and student pit new cynicism against weatherworn idealism. And as expected, the angle of action is painfully burdened with consequences that this national body can neither afford nor avoid. And this national body is the one Redford cares about. “I’m worried about my country, obviously.”
“I’ve never in my lifetime, and I’ve lived through some pretty great events — WWII, McCarthyism, assassination of a president and a vice president, Iran [Contra] and other upheavals — I’ve never seen my country in as bad a shape as it is now,” Redford said. “How it’s seen on the world stage. How we’re perceived. What one single administration can do to trash so many categories. It breaks my heart.”
“[The enemy] is not the point of the film — we’ve seen the enemy in documentaries and TV shows and many films dealing with Iraq and Afghanistan,” Redford explained. This explains why we never see the enemy; their representation “was meant to be like a concept — the enemy is the enemy is the enemy, like a rose is a rose is a rose.” Far more concerned with turning an understanding camera towards the turmoil at home, Redford chose to deal with the enemies “more impressionistically” because he “wanted to stay focused on the guys and their effort to do the right thing: see them [the soldiers] struggle against impossible odds, to stay alive and to be soldiers, not knowing what was happening. Focusing on the enemy would have been another distraction.”
Though Lions for Lambs revolves around the story of the two recruits, the larger part of screen time is dedicated to the debates of the three main stars: Redford, Cruise and Streep. In its overview of cultural debates, the film is strikingly comprehensive, but to get there, it has to do a good bit of talking. But even in its moments of self-conflict Lions is not off limits to self-criticism. Redford said when he first read the script, “I thought, ‘This could be tough.’ Talking heads in a room is not where audiences are these days. And then that challenged me. Can you make people care? That became a challenge I decided to go for.”
So how then, can a diligently sincere film that proffers engagement manage the fact that it’s swimming in speech? “You’re dealing with the very issue the film’s talking about, and you’ve got it on yourself,” he said with a recognizable gentility, proving the highest honor at Redford’s table is reserved for personal conviction.
Originally a stage play, Matthew Michael Carnahan’s (The Kingdom) script “had been around for a while, I think about a year and a half, and nobody was willing to make it.” The script is accessible but dense and makes a clear effort to both legitimize and display the sorts of arguments normally reduced to categories like “red state versus blue state.” [Read how Carnahan became politically engaged by penning Lions for Lambs here.]
Through Lions, Redford found a connection back to the politically inspired films he’s participated in throughout his career. “I’ve always tried to make diverse films but there’s usually a fundamental theme underneath all of it. I’m always interested in the political scene and have been since 1970 when I made The Candidate, All the President’s Men,…Quiz Show. They’re various films that are about the power of media and so on, but times have changed so drastically since I started [making films]. It’s like there’s always a new film to be made about the new condition. [Lions for Lambs] was different because this is about what is fundamentally unchanged.”
What that fundamentally unchanged thing is, is a way of thinking. “What are the conditions that lead us into this situation we found ourselves in during McCarthy, Watergate, Iran-Contra? What’s underneath it that creates this? Not this but what’s underneath. It’s a mindset: It’s a sentiment that belongs to a certain kind of character and a way of thinking. And they don’t go away. You would have thought after Watergate that those people who did all the dirty tricks for Nixon and lied and cheated and his effort to withhold, hide and conceal the truth, and the press going out after him — you would have thought that once that high point was reached that would never happen again. It is [happening now], only worse.”
Though Redford speaks openly against these breaches of public trust (Iran-Contra, Watergate, McCarthyism), he doesn’t speak through his film. True to that model of lefty awareness raising, Lions doesn’t lead you to any conclusions at all. “We didn’t tie it up with a ribbon. Could have been very easy to do that. You could have had a scene at the end where the student comes into the classroom and the teacher looks up and he comes in the door and you know he’s come back. We don’t know what he [Todd] is going to do but we do know one thing: he’s thinking. So therefore you’re asking the audience to think about how they feel. When Tom Cruise’s character finishes with Meryl Streep’s character he sweeps her right out the door. He’s gonna go on doing what he’s gonna do the way he’s gonna do it.”
In retrospect, the film can be read as a battle between people who act on their conscience and those who carry their consciences in tow. And, it’s worth noting, the battle is meant to play onscreen as well as in the minds of each audience member. “We can ask ourselves about 9/11 all we want: How did we get there? Did we have warnings before? But the fact is, we’re here now. We’ve got to think about how to move forward. So he [Senator Irving] has got a point and she [journalist Roth] has got a point. Then you put it to the audience and you let the audience figure out what their position is.”
Among the film’s multitude of opinions there is one thing Lions doesn’t provide. “We don’t provide the answer,” Redford said. “It’s simply meant for you to think about it, and so why not put that in front of students and see what they have to say?”
Redford’s goal with the film involves a myriad of outreach screenings to college campuses. This, Redford says, was his idea. “I said, I’d rather go to the areas and meet with groups and take time. And I would be particularly interested, because of the film and what the film is about, to involve young people, to go to schools and colleges and find out what they think.”
“There’s a general idea that young people over the last 10 or 15 years have grown more apathetic, more cynical — which I think is true — but probably for some good reason. But now it’s dangerous because if that’s the way it’s going to be for young people they’ll move farther and farther away from involvement in a system that’s getting worse and worse and worse.” This makes the possibility of engagement (to say nothing of theater attendance) among college age audiences seem all the more indigestible. But Redford explains that, love it or leave it, the question Todd asks Professor Malley (“Why would I want to get involved in a system that’s this diseased or corrupted?”) should be followed by the retort “Precisely because it is.” Because as Redford states, “You’re the one that’s going to have the future, not me.”