"...his smile jumps straight from a toothpaste commercial."
“Lions for Lambs” is nearly inert. Robert Redford has directed this movie about the politics of war as an extended conversation about America’s role in Iraq. While it won’t set the Box Office on fire, the film is likely to provoke thought and talk among those who already care. As three fictional characters who care a lot, Redford, Meryl Streep, and Tom Cruise have varying degrees of success in their roles.
Tom Cruise plays Senator Jasper Irving, a poster boy presidential candidate whose every move is made to enhance his march to the White House. His suit coat and shirt are cut tight to his muscles, his smile jumps straight from a toothpaste commercial, and his new plan for winning the war is designed to pop him front and center on the nightly news.
How to present his plan with the biggest splash? Call in a respected journalist, flatter her with a one hour interview, and spin the story you want her to write. He summons Janine Roth (Meryl Streep) and lays out his war plan in detail. With her name on the exclusive, Irving will own the news that night. But Janine is not one for dutiful gratitude and knows she is being used as a P.R. conduit. Jasper’s manipulation has pricked her conscience.
Of the three stories that make up the movie, Jasper and Janine are strand #1. Strand #2 takes place in the academic office of Dr. Stephen Malley (Robert Redford) where the professor is trying to re-engage a bright but recalcitrant student. Professor Malley is comfortably informal to the point of becoming a sedative. Strand #3 involves two of Professor Malley’s former students who became so engaged with the world under his encouragement that they find themselves in Afghanistan as infantrymen in the first stage of the Senator Irving’s plan to win the war.
The connective tissue of the three stories is flimsy – really flimsy. Each one could stand on its own, but for some reason, writer Matthew Michael Carnahan couldn’t resist the temptation to tie them together. Struggling to make this weak structure work, Tom Cruise overplays his ambitious senator, becoming nearly a caricature – forget I said that….Aren’t all candidates caricatures?
Robert Redford, it seems, is also struggling – but in the opposite direction. This is an actor who refuses to overplay any part. He manages to express his political views from a professor’s chair where he can discuss his beliefs and influence students in the understated manner he favors.
Only Meryl Streep – are we surprised? – creates a real character. With small gestures and expressions, she builds a committed journalist – thoughtful and reflective, in contrast to Cruise’s flamboyant candidate. Her final decision on how to handle the story she has been fed is built on a base of subtleties she has been building throughout the interview. Not too much, not too little, right on key. Streep almost saves a bad day.
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