Robert Redford’s new movie Lions for Lambs is struggling at the box office. It’s also been getting largely negative reviews. But since I saw Bill O’Reilly and other right-wing outlets bashing it for its supposed anti-American bias, I felt honor-bound to go see it.
I guess there’s no accounting for taste. I loved this movie. I thought it was completely riveting throughout, despite having almost nothing in the way of action. The plot, such as it is, involves three loosely connected stories. In one, Republican senator Tom Cruise is trying to persuade skeptical journalist Meryl Streep that a great new military strategy is about to be unveiled in the Middle East, and that this will finally turn the tide.
In another, political science professor Robert Redford is trying to convince a bright but apathetic student to become more interested in public affairs. And finally, two of Redford’s former students, now serving in Iraq, run into some difficulties implementing Cruise’s strategy.
Most of the negative reviews I have seen haven’t gotten past the level of juvenilitiy. It’s too wordy! It’s too preachy! Ooooh, I hate that Tom Cruise! Let me just say that I found it a relief to watch a movie in which interesting characters say believable things to each other for several minutes at a time. Movies have gotten so frenetic these days that it’s rare for a scene to last more than thirty seconds.
Cruise, who is actually a pretty good actor when he is not promoting his favorite religious cult or preaching about the evils of psychiatry, is terrific as the smarmy, fanatical right-wing senator. I could think of a dozen prominent Republicans who would say exactly what Cruise was saying (a testament to a well-written screen-play) and would say it exactly the way Cruise said it (a testament to good acting).
What I really liked was the story involving Redford’s character. I think he perfectly captured the frustration some college professors feel towards their work. Professors invariably love their subject, otherwise they would never go through the hassle of getting a PhD and taking their chances in a perilous academic market. Every academic begins with the hopes of doing really important work in their field and inspiring students to do the same.
But as the years go by those hopes tend to fade. Your research becomes increasingly esoteric and ignored. Your students are usually bored and unprepared. You have the self-doubt of wondering whether you’re really making the best use of such talents as you have. That was perfectly conveyed in Redford’s character, a testament again both to good acting and good writing.
We must also dispense with the idea that this is some sort of screed. Even in this dopey, right-wing country of ours, I don’t think we’re so far gone that this surprisingly mild and even-handed movie could possibly be considered a screed. Tom Cruise scores some points in his little debate with Meryl Streep, and Redford is hardly frothing at the mouth against the war. His students who enlisted are presented as heroes. In fact, if you came to this movie not knowing anything about the larger cultural context, it is not really until near the end of the film that an unambiguous anti-war message appears. Only demented right-wing demagogues could see this as anti-American.
I saw the film last night. There were only two other people in the theater except for me, which is pretty bad even for a Monday night. That’s a pity. It’s much a better movie than you’ve probably heard. Go see it.
A final coda. I happened to catch Dennis Miller on O’Reilly’s show discussing what a left-wing freak show Hollywood is. He complained about people like Redford going off about their political views. The only thing he wants from Redford are good movies, he doesn’t care what he thinks about politics.
Right. That’s Dennis Miller complaining about entertainers mouthing off about politics. Where I come from we call that chutzpah.