Redford’s latest is a well-meaning, manufactured, middling movie

Convinced that evil triumphs when good people do nothing, Stephen Malley summons a brilliant slacker to his campus office. A professor of political science, Malley berates young Todd, a child of white privilege, for the glib cynicism that leads him to coast through class and life. “Why don’t you care anymore?” Malley demands. By contrast, Ernest Rodriguez and Arian Finch, two other students, both from disadvantaged backgrounds, have asserted personal responsibility for their presence in the world. Malley admires their existential commitment, though he strongly disagrees with the form it took — enlistment in the Army Special Forces.

While Malley cross-examines Todd, another Socratic dialogue is proceeding on the other side of the country, on Capitol Hill in Washington. Senator Jasper Irving has summoned reporter Janine Roth for an exclusive briefing on a new strategy to defeat the Taliban. However, Roth has been covering politicians long enough to smell the excrement in Irving’s presentation. She recognizes that his ambitious new plan to win hearts and minds in Afghanistan is merely “a lubricant to get him into the White House.” Yet she works for a TV network that has sacrificed news to entertainment, and she is under pressure to merely repeat what the smarmy Republican lawmaker tells her.

Lions for Lambs crosscuts between an idyllic California university, an office of the United States Senate, and a desolate ridge in Afghanistan that Special Forces commandos, including Rodriguez and Finch, are attempting to secure. They are carrying out the military operation that Irving outlines to Roth.

Lions for Lambs derives its title from a statement made during World War I. Admiring the courage of British troops brought to slaughter by the ignorance and arrogance of their own leaders, a German general observed: “Nowhere else have I seen such lions led by such lambs.” This film is a critique of American military leadership, even as it affirms its pious support for “our troops.” Once upon a time, Hollywood romanticized working people and vilified their exploitive bosses. Today, the price for opposing American war policy is
allegiance to the cult of the grunt — a belief in the unassailable virtue of enlisted soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines. Surely they are the finest in the world, regardless of what they are doing to the world.

Planners in the White House and the Pentagon might be corrupt or incompetent or both, but no one dares question the integrity of the men and women who execute their plans, however nefarious. Lions for Lambs portrays Rodriguez and Finch as heroic victims of Senator Irving’s political ambitions. But it sees no contradiction in revering them as free agents while refusing to hold them accountable for the consequences of their commitments.

This earnest film poses the questions that ought to be posed in this, the sixth year of the American occupation of Afghanistan — about the responsibilities of leaders, educators, journalists, soldiers, and citizens. But this is canned theater of ideas, and the tin has made the mind grow rusty. The conversations on screen are contrived merely to simulate serious thinking. Instead of lionizing intense young men who take up arms, it might have mused over William Butler Yeats’s lament for a world in which “The best lack all conviction while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity.” •

Lions for Lambs
Dir. Robert Redford; writ. Matthew Michael Carnahan; feat. Robert Redford, Meryl Streep, Tom Cruise, Michael Peña, Derek Luke (R)


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