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
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
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-
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
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.