Lions for Lambs and the limits of liberalism

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Director and actor Robert Redford’s antiwar film, Lions for Lambs, would be easy

to dismiss as a long, drawn-out lecture delivered with sledgehammers. But as a pithy

illustration of stagnant, stupefied and stranded liberal politics, it’s priceless.

The film is composed of alternating dialogues that take place in three different settings.

In one, seasoned reporter Janine Roth (Meryl Streep), interviews the opportunistic

militarist Senator Jasper Irving (Tom Cruise) in Washington, D.C. He has initiated a

“new strategy” for victory against the Taliban in Afghanistan and wants Roth to report it

and sell it to the public. With his megawatt smile and excellent dental work, Cruise is the

quintessential huckster.

Meanwhile, at a California college, Prof. Stephen Malley (Redford) sees potential in

an apathetic, privileged, white male student and challenges him to wake up and “do

something.” Flashbacks to Malley’s classroom show former students debating pursuit of

the good life vs. committed engagement to “make a difference.”

Also in the mix are scenes that show two of these ex-students, an African American and

his badly injured Latino buddy, facing death after falling from a downed helicopter onto

a freezing mountaintop in Afghanistan. They are the first victims of Senator Irving’s new

strategy.

The movie indicts the media as a conduit of government misinformation and a peddler of

entertainment and trivia instead of a responsible investigator. In a time of ruthless U.S.

global aims and lethal foreign policy, this is an abdication with deadly consequences.

Further, Lions accuses the political system of runaway self-interest no matter the cost,

or, as Senator Irving puts it, through doing “whatever it takes.” It finds society at large

wanting, too, because people supposedly are too bound up in consumerism to care about

ending the system’s rot and corruption.

An example of dissent with no direction. These situations and premises sound like the

basis for a stimulating film, but ticket sales for Lions have been meager and the movie

has not lasted in theatres in the U.S. for more than a few weeks.

Perhaps audiences simply do not see antiwar films as entertainment. However, word of

mouth from those who did see Lions characterized it as uninspiring, even boring — and

for good reason.

Namely, while Lions exposes and condemns some of the ugly realities of political life, it

cannot fathom their root causes.

The movie’s form demonstrates the bankruptcy of the post-modernist approach: its three

parts are disconnected from each other and none of them goes anywhere. There is no

target and no destination. Abrupt cuts from one conversation to another are no substitute

for dynamic, dramatic motion.

This disconnected form reflects the film’s essence — its politics go nowhere either.

Describing problems is not the same as analyzing them. By not exploring the “why” of

the issues it presents, Lions for Lambs becomes a political cul-de-sac.

A case in point is the professor’s suggestion of how the student he is attempting to reach

can make a difference: “Lick envelopes, knock on doors … do something.” The student

appears chloroformed by this invitation to join the endless wheel of liberal reform-the-
system suffering.

The precious platitudes of liberalism avoid a basic truth: the system that generates wars

like Bush’s is based on fundamental class antagonisms that cannot be resolved short of

revolution. However, many people who deeply desire change are drawn to a step-by-
step, reformist kind of activism because it is all they see, or they are hammered with the

idea that any other approach is unrealistic. The lack of a visible, credible alternative to

bourgeois politics may explain not only the lack of excitement about Lions, but scanty

voter turnout in the U.S. as well.

Additionally, the movie gives little sense of how bad real-life conditions have become.

It offers no hint about the disintegrated infrastructure of cities, poverty, homelessness,

layoffs, lack of healthcare, desperation of youth, Dickensian conditions for the elderly

poor — the immense in-your-face evidence of the system’s failure.

Instead, it pursues a psychological view that an honest politician or administration is

bound to come along if only people will take personal responsibility for this search and

not give up along the way (the film’s self-serving definition of apathy).

When it comes to women and people of color, Lions is an embarrassment. The professor,

who regards himself as having a gift for spotting students with promise, has apparently

not noticed any women who fit the bill. His African American and Latino “discoveries,”

however, are innocent, naïve, almost saintly stereotypes. Although they bloomed with his

encouragement, they decided to “make a difference” by quitting school to volunteer for

Army Special Forces. Their final scene is steeped in enough patriotic treacle to induce a

diabetic coma.

In contrast, how refreshing it would be see a film about the young students who have

organized to expel the U.S. recruiters infesting high schools and colleges to seek recruits

for the military murder machine. Had the film’s two buddies encountered this resistance

movement, they might have changed course and confronted the status quo instead of

becoming pawns in service to a politician’s White House ambitions.

Stop the insanity! Akin to a horror movie audience screaming, “Behind you!” as a

monster creeps up on its oblivious victim, a Lions viewer is moved to groan, “Right in

front of you!” when one character, the journalist, almost grasps the bigger picture.

Roth, like the Vietnam-vet professor, has been around a long time. Each time she’s

set her hopes on a politician — Senator Irving, for one — she’s been disillusioned.

Ironically, it was her adoring article for Time magazine that put him on the cover and

launched his career. With disbelief at what she now hears, Roth pointedly questions

Irving, who parries with patriotic hyperbole such as “I won’t see this country humiliated

again…by tribal rag-tags.”

Back in the office Roth angrily tells her editor that the senator’s new strategy is bogus

propaganda and she refuses to write it up without characterizing it as yet another

jingoistic “kill people to save people” gambit.

The editor refuses to print it as Roth sees it, threatens her job and walks out. Quick-cut

to the listless student, watching the Shopping Channel as a news-line trails along the

screen’s bottom reporting Irving’s new Afghanistan strategy without comment. Did Roth

write it? Who knows?

Insanity has been defined as doing the same thing over and over and still hoping for

a different result. Lions is a case study of the application of this idea to making social

change: after a point, it becomes loony to not connect the dots and choose to get off

the system’s sad-go-round. Coming to the decision to dump the entire mess would be a

freeing first step on the road to sanity.

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