More Lamb than Lion

Robert Redford's new movie Lions for Lambs attempts to be political. But does he manage to take the issues as seriously as he claims?

Robert Redford's Lions for Lambs is angry. The War on Terror isn't going well and American society is complacent. No one is doing anything and, maybe worse, no one has any well-thought-out plans for the future. To illustrate these grievances Redford employs three loosely interwoven stories: an interview with the fictional Sen. Jasper Irving (Tom Cruise) by Janine Roth (Meryl Streep), an early morning student-professor meeting (Andrew Garfield and Redford, respectively) and an air patrol in Afghanistan in which two soldiers (Derek Luke and Michael Peña) end up stranded in the mountains.

Though Redford covers much ground in his film, the most striking point is the political commentary. Redford uses Sen. Irving as a voice for the Bush Administration and Roth as the questioning voice of dissent. Using these characters he aims to inform and educate viewers to the current state of American foreign relations and, in that way, he's setting the stage for a debate about the present and future of American foreign policy Ultimately, though, Redford has taken on a burden in trying to lay out the "truth" of American foreign policy, but his philippic never provides enough context or information to viewers to come to informed conclusions, and so it falls short. Like Sisyphus, he never gets his boulder to the top of the hill.

Throughout his meeting with Roth, Irving continually makes declarations of his plans for improving America's tactics in the War on Terror, which is conveniently packaged as simply the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (which is in itself charitable to the Bush Administration since the administration's War on Terror is ideological and cannot actually be won). Irving wants troops to be deployed differently, in small groups. His plan will work, he says. He's not just sure, he knows it will work. But as he makes these grand declarations, Roth persistently questions his assertions. "How do you know it will work? What about a troop surge? Is there any way to verify the efficacy of your plans?" represent the species of question she asks. The interaction comes across with strength: those in power are being questioned and being held accountable. Redford is implicitly telling us that we should act as Roth acts. Roth's actions also serve to cut Irving's assertions down to size and reveal them as the hollow ideas that they truly are.

Unfortunately, Redford does not move past the questioning stage. There is one moment in the Roth-Irving conversation that exemplifies this fatal flaw. The interview reaches a crescendo and Sen. Irving asks Roth, "Do you want to win the War on Terror, yes or no?" Irving, though, is swept away temporarily by a phone call, Streep is unable to answer, and the issue is dropped when Irving returns. Of course, no one is going to answer "no" to that question. The real question that needs an answer is why Irving's (and, by association, the Bush Administration's) question is bogus. Roth gets out "It's not that simple", but that doesn't even come close to an explanation of the misleading nature of such black-and-white questions. And that's a shame because this film was supposed to provide political insight into the world of American politics and foreign policy. Yet here was an excellent opportunity for Redford to educate his audience by telling us how such questions are flawed, how one can address these questions, and how one can think about these questions so as to better understand their misleading, virile nature. It also makes the interaction hollow in that it points out a political device that is deceptive but never explains why. Redford wants to challenge the Bush Administration and its approach, but, by not directly tackling the inherently flawed nature, he lets them get away with it and lets viewers down.

This is just the tip of the iceberg, though. The bigger picture shows a flawed approach to this issue. Roth shows us how we should act: question authority. Not its legitimacy (as many naïfs would believe or extol), but its plans and words expounded by the government. Is a surge right? When should we leave Iraq? What is the nature of the enemy? Those are all the questions that Roth encourages us to ask, and that's good. But it stops there. There is no follow up. The final push of the boulder never happens. Essentially, Redford gives us the introduction to the flipside (read: Democratic) side of the argument-though in some ways that void is a parallel to the Democratic Party in power now-but never the actual argument. If Sen. Irving's ideas are so terrible, what are the alternatives? That is the simple question that never gets answered. In turn, by not answering that question, Redford lets viewers down.

One might argue that Redford purposely left a gap to allow viewers to come to their own conclusions. There are two problems with that assertion though. The first is that Redford puts himself on a rostrum and thus faces telling us everything we need to know. Anything less and he falls short. He needs to educate us as viewers; he is our guide. And that's the second flaw with Redford allowing us to figure out our own positions: he doesn't give the proper framework to approach political issues. A student can't study physics without first understanding calculus. Similarly, it's not possible to come to an informed conclusion about a political issue without being exactly that: fully informed on both sides of the issue. But Lions for Lambs didn't even need to lay out all sides of the issue. It could have also simply given the basic structure for how issues like this should be approached methodically and without bias. It needed to take a page out of the book of the Jesuits by teaching the viewer how to learn properly. Redford shows us Roth railing against Irving's half-baked ideas and statements, but doesn't give us the tools-or the ideas-to understand what alternatives we face.