Apathy wins again

Rudolf Elliot Lockhart 22 November 2007

During the Crimean War, The Times reported Russian comments that the British army fought like ‘lions led on by asses’. The phrase has been much recycled, most notably for the ‘donkeys’ of the First World War. ‘Lions for Asses’ might play well for the adult industry, but to spare Hollywood’s blushes the asses have become lambs in Robert Redford’s new film about the politics of ‘the war on terror’.

It’s still not a very good title. The leaders it features are neither meek and gentle sheep nor stupid donkeys.

In fact, the target of the film’s criticism is not the leadership that sends our brave boys off to fight, but the apathy that Redford thinks makes many of us drift off when we’re asked to engage with a changing world post 9-11. But I guess ‘Lions for Sloths’ would be a rubbish title too…

This is Tom Cruise’s first film as part of his comeback after getting the boot from Paramount for jumping the couch. He has taken over at United Artists and set about making serious films on worthy subjects. With Redford directing for the first time in seven years and further star sheen provided by Meryl Streep this is a film with big ambitions.

Redford uses the increasingly familiar technique of intertwining stories taking place concurrently at different points on the globe. In Washington we have Streep as the liberal journalist interviewing Republican Young Turk senator Cruise about his latest plan for Afghanistan. Several thousand miles away, two young soldiers are in dire trouble fighting as part of Cruise’s big push.

Meanwhile back in California, Redford, the soldiers’ former political science professor is giving a gifted but lazy student a dressing down to shake him from his apathy. Normally an intertwining structure is used to show complexity and interconnectivity as well as to show (often rather tritely) that people from very different backgrounds and with different beliefs face similar issues. Lions for Lambs uses it to show people following different paths but all wanting to make a difference.

It makes for a somewhat talky and preachy film. The Washington and California portions of the film feel like an exercise in talking heads spewing familiar speeches about the ‘war on terror’. There’s nothing fresh to them, no dynamism, no tension in the discussions and in both cases the debates fizzle out rather than land any punches. The scenes in Afghanistan are even less interesting; the soldiers lie in the snow and get shot at. And that’s it.

For an attack on apathy the film fails to offer any positive alternative. We might be shown a succession of people standing up and fighting for what they believe in, but none of them actually do make a positive difference.

There is a real danger that it is the apathetic cynic who comes out of this film looking the most clued up.

This is a shame. The film has good intentions managing impressively to be both liberal and patriotic. Meryl Streep is as excellent as ever and Tom Cruise is perfectly cast as the slightly sinister politician with oily charm and silver tongue recalling his turn as the sexist motivational speaker in Magnolia. But this isn’t enough to save the film. Redford might want to inspire us to stand up for something – anything – but he hardly gives us much hope that we’ll actually make a difference if we do.

Rudolf Elliot Lockhart