A senator gives an interview to a journalist about a new strategy being unveiled in the US war in Afghanistan. A professor of political science tries to persuade a brilliant but lazy student to fulfill the promise he has shown. Meanwhile, two of his students are stranded deep inside enemy territory in Afghanistan, in an offensive that didn’t go exactly as planned. The offensive is part of the new strategy the senator is talking about. All of this takes place simultaneously, over a span of one hour. Much of the movie is about that hour, and what led to it.
There is a term for this sort of movie with multiple interlocking storylines: hyperlink movie. Some of its examples are luminous — Traffic, Syriana and Babel come to mind instantly. This one, however, doesn’t shine quite as brightly. Theoretically, the movie has everything in place. High concept, three well-known and talented actors, and an opportunity to engage in serious debate on the War on Terror. And yet…
Part of the problem lies with the dialogue. Consider the scenes where the professor tries to convince his student to wake up. Most of it is the sort of standard banter between cynicism and earnestness that any screenwriter could sleepwalk through. The conversation itself touches upon two ex-students who enlisted in the army because they wanted to change things. These very students are the ones stranded in Afghanistan, and that adds an additional layer of meaning to the dialogue involving them. But this is too little to recommend it. The scenes involving those ex-students in Afghanistan are just as dead — except for a brief moment towards the end, I never felt involved. The only respite was the few classroom scenes where there rapid-fire exchanges between the students infused some energy into the proceedings.
The scenes involving the senator explaining the new strategy on Afghanistan are the only ones that evoke some measure of interest. The senator talks in PR-friendly soundbytes, and the journalist tries to break through that in a manner that is diffident, yet persistent. While the conversation itself is unremarkable, the contrast between the speaking styles of the two characters underscores the conflict. I also liked how the conversation took some time to find its rhythm – in the beginning, the pauses between lines are a lot more awkward, but as it proceeds, you see both parties masking it better. However it suffers froma different problem: it’s too short. By the time the conversation builds up a head of steam, it’s over.
The other big problem is the editing rhythm. Every time one thread begins to find some momentum, it cuts to the other thread. While I understand that Redford does not want to tell each story completely in one go, my guess is that even a minute or two with better dialogue would’ve made a huge difference.
Of the three major leads, Redford’s performance is the least impressive. His character is supposed to be restrained, and I can understand that. But here, he seems more than restrained. He just seems to be going through the motions. Cruise acquits himself with a fairly decent performance. This is one of the smarmiest characters he has played, and he does it well. Meryl Streep is the standout here. There is, in particular, one scene where she walks around the senator’s office looking at the pictures he’s put up. One of them is a framed copy of her article praising him as the next big thing in Congress. It’s amazing how much she conveys through her facial expressions while just looking at these pictures silently.
Watching Lions for Lambs is like dating an inflatable doll. The pieces are all in place, it’s anatomically perfect and makes all the right noises, but there’s no way of getting around the fact that it’s essentially empty.
ps: For those of you who wonder what it would be like to date an inflatable doll, I recommend getting a life. Or, see if you can find a DVD of Lars and the Real Girl, unseen by me but loved by many critics whose opinion I respect.