By: Sam Watermeier <[email protected]>
As a director, Robert Redford usually avoids the chance to push the envelope. For example, with “Quiz Show,” he could have made a dark character study about Charles Van Doren and how he was seduced by the greedy world of television during the 1950s quiz show scandal. Instead, Redford delivered a standard mystery/courtroom drama in which the detective pursuing Doren was the obvious protagonist and Doren the obvious antagonist. There was little attempt to make Doren a sympathetic character. He was portrayed as weak and pathetic. Redford’s new film, “Lions for Lambs” is different. It is unique in that there is no clear protagonist or antagonist, and that is rare for a political film these days. It’s what the Fox News Channel would call “fair and balanced.”
Like “Syriana,” this film features different sets of characters and storylines. The film follows three stories: a Republican senator (Tom Cruise) revealing a new military strategy to an intrepid reporter (Meryl Streep), two soldiers getting into harm’s way while implementing the strategy and a political science professor (Redford) trying to convince a student to get more involved. The military scenes are eerily realistic and suspenseful, but the film also puts the audience at the frontlines of some equally intense political debates. What sets this film apart from other political films is the fact that both sides of its argument are convincing. One can tell that screenwriter Matthew Michael Carnahan respects both sides because he is not manipulative in depicting them. He allows both sides (liberal and conservative) to take their shots at each other. The screenplay is completely ambiguous and the characters talk in circles, but that is the strength of this film: It leaves the audience thinking.
Say what you want about Tom Cruise as a person, but as an actor, he is one of our finest. Whether he is playing a contract killer, sports agent or Republican senator, he portrays each character with conviction. Like his hitman character in “Collateral,” Senator Jasper Irving’s views are surprisingly insightful. Who would’ve thought a Republican character would be portrayed so respectfully in a Hollywood film? Also, who would’ve thought Cruise would have more powerful screen presence than Meryl Streep? The greatest American actress of the last 30 years phones it in here in a weak and dispassionate performance. Redford, on the other hand, is too passionate. When his character is lecturing a student, it’s like Redford is preaching directly to the audience. His lack of subtlety is overwhelming.
Obviously, Redford wants people to take action after seeing this film. However preachy it may seem at times, one must admire this film’s aggressive approach. In one scene, Redford even scorns the audience when his character says, “I’ve never seen lions being led by such lambs.” Right now, that is a dead-on statement, proving Redford has made a dead-on film.