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Lions for Lambs – Cathartic glance at American politics

Starring: Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep and Robert Redford
Director: Robert Redford
Rated: M

IN a Congressional office, presidential hopeful Senator Jasper Irving (Tom Cruise) is about to give a bombshell of a story about a new war strategy to a probing TV journalist (Meryl Streep).

The two carry out a fierce cat-and-mouse game of wit, charm and evasion.

At a West Coast University, a once idealistic professor, Dr Malley (Robert Redford) confronts a privileged but blasé student (Andrew Garfield) about his lack of ambition in never fulfilling on his enormous potential.

Meanwhile, across the globe, in the heat of battle in Afghanistan, two of Dr Malley’s former students, Arian (Derek Luke) and Ernest (Michael Peña), lay bare the debates and arguments of mentors and politicians in a stark fight for sheer survival, the heart wrenching consequences of which will reverberate through all of their lives.


Of the many functions the cinema plays in contemporary society, one of them is as catharsis.

A catharsis is an emotional, psychological or spiritual release. It enables the person to give expression to the stress and frustration born of repressing conflict, thoughts or feelings deemed unacceptable or emotions that are beginning to enter his or her consciousness.

This applies not just to an individual but to a society as well.


For obvious reasons, the USA has been under inordinate stress and frustration since September 11, 2001.

As the Iraq war has dragged on that frustration has become acute.

It is not by accident, therefore, that the US cinema is now producing several films that deal with their trauma. It is cathartic.

Most of these films are doing what was initially unacceptable in the aftermath of 9/11: being critical of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the thinking behind it and the toll it is taking at home.


Lions for Lambs is a cathartic film in this vein.

The three stories attempt to delve into different aspects of the conflict: the Republican hawks’ view of the world and the USA’s role within it; the media’s complicity in not asking enough questions and turning wars into entertainment; the sacrifice of the young and brave in battle; and the indolence that comes from political impotence.


To a fair degree this works here, but there are a few major problems.


Although Lions for Lambs moves at brisk pace, it is very wordy, and at times feels more like a meeting of the debating society.

American films can often be didactic, not trusting the pictures to tell the story, and writer Matthew Michael Carnahan overdoes it here.


The characterisations don’t help either. Cruise’s Senator Irving ends up the scariest of men who is prepared to nuke American’s way to world domination.

The two soldiers being shot at in Afghanistan just happen to be an African American and Latino, while the apathetic student “in a Californian University” (it is actually UCLA but they, clearly, did not want their name used) is a wealthy Anglo-Saxon white boy.

And Redford’s politics professor is a Viet vet, so he has the street-cred to have an opinion on war.


Robert Redford is a director of distinction with Quiz Show and Ordinary People under his belt. The last film he directed was The Legend of Bagger Vance seven years ago.

He must be out of practice because there are hosts of annoying continuity mistakes, bad photomontages and mismatched exterior and interior shots that end up distracting.

It is a pity that the title of the film is a fiction as well.

Redford’s character, the academic Dr Malley, quotes a WWI German general, admiring of Allied soldiers but not their commanders, as saying: “Nowhere else have I seen such lions led by such lambs.”

It’s apocryphal, and I am not sure why Carnahan thought quoting a German general would make it any more accurate of the present quagmire.

Lions for Lambs has a star-studded cast, but In the Valley of Elah, Redacted and Rendition will soon be with us, and they provide even better trigger moments for catharsis over how our post-9/11 revenge is playing out.


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