If Robert Redford had made Lions for Lambs 30 years ago, it would have been a sharper, smarter film.
But it's 2007, and Redford has turned 71. He is a businessman; he oversees the Sundance corporation -- "Get your t-shirt here." He is surrounded by lackeys and wannabes. He has become a tired entrepreneur.
If Redford had been starring in All the President's Men (1976) today, he'd probably want to give Nixon's side of things to provide proper balance.
Lions for Lambs is a cautious film. One doubts whether Redford really believes in equal time for both sides, but it probably seemed like a good idea for better box office. He also used the flack Pete Hammond in the ads promoting his movie -- "You won't be able to turn away." Wanna bet, Petey? If I ever turned away from a movie -- who does? -- This might be the one.
Lions for Lambs is in three intercut parts. The first is a tedious discussion between Stephen Malley (Redford), a poli-sci prof at a California university, and Todd Hayes (Andrew Garfield), a slacker student, whom Malley thinks is one of the most promising students he's ever had.
But Todd is the best and the slightest. Whatever the supposedly-earnest professor sees in the wayward student is nowhere to be found on the screen. This part of the film fails it the most. It should be a vital, potent, intriguing discussion; instead it is a drab conversation between a drab prof and a drabber student.
Malley: "Why don't you care?" Wah, wah, wah.
This pivotal scene seems as though it is just two actors going through the motions with fairly vapid dialogue. It's calculated and not real. Much of this part's failure is due to ineffective acting. One can blame it on inadequate dialogue, but the delivery is lustreless.
Redford -- with dyed hair and ashen, wrinkled, craggy face -- makes sure his shirt matches his eyes. But his performance is uncoordinated.
At the beginning of his career, Redford was willing to play hollow men -- in Downhill Racer (1969) and The Candidate (1972). But then in 1973 The Way We Were came along and Redford was forever a movie star. He would never again take the chances he once took.
In a year of great performances by young actors, first-timer Andrew Garfield is a spoiler. He's inadequate. Redford should have thought back to the relationship between an adult psychiatrist (Judd Hirsch) and a young man (Timothy Hutton) in Ordinary People (1980), which was Redford's Oscar-winning debut as a director. That relationship had chemistry. Redford and Garfield have none.
The second part of Lions for Lambs is a discussion in Washington, D.C. -- between a pro-war senator (Tom Cruise) and a TV journalist (Meryl Streep) -- in which the politician tries to sell the journalist on a new strategy for the "war against terror."
The actors are better than the dialogue -- "We made mistakes." Blah, blah, blah.
The third part of Lions for Lambs is the only section that has any impact. It is about two of Prof Malley's former students. They now are army rangers, who are wounded and trapped on a mountain range in Afghanistan. Derek Luke and Michael Pena do have chemistry as the idealistic, minority pair of soldiers.
Matthew Michael Carnahan's script for Lions for Lambs is a great, big baa. Redford's direction is listless.
The title of Lions for Lambs comes from what a German general supposedly said during World War I about infantry and the people who gave them orders. He said, "Nowhere else have I seen such lions led by such lambs."
One realizes this is a shot at the U.S.'s present administration. But like the Democratic Party, the film has no spine.
Lions for Lambs is movie mutton.
For a change of pace, you might want to listen to interviews that I conducted in the 70s and 80s, some of which were published in my book Voices from the Set: The Film Heritage Interviews (2000).
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