“Rome is burning, son!”
So says Professor Stephen Malley (Robert Redford) to a disaffected student named Todd in Redford’s new film, Lions for Lambs. It’s an alarming message, in a movie full of messages: civil rights are in peril, soldiers are dying, and American morale is low. To each of which, Redford asks: what are we going to do about it?
If only the Redford’s plot were as easy to follow as his pontificating. Redford isn’t able to successfully weave together his stories in ninety minutes, so a concise and comprehensible plot summary is nearly impossible. While Malley exhorts the increasingly jaded Todd to get involved, a veteran reporter (Meryl Streep) in distant Washington grills a Republican Senator (Tom Cruise) on his new military strategy. On top of that add a pair of U.S. troops named Arian and Ernest, who come under Taliban fire in Afghanistan. They are pawns in the ambitious senator’s disastrous operation, and also former students of Malley’s.
If you’re confused now, hold on—that’s just the first fifteen minutes.
Lions for Lambs is not so much a war drama, or a film about righteous academics and journalists speaking truth to power, as it is a fractured, twenty-first century morality play. There are no real characters, only templates, and this, for better or worse, appears to be by design. The whole film flaunts a daring lack of specificity. The private institution where Malley works is only described as a “California university.” He is essentially every aging activist (he bears a scar from “Chicago in ’68”), discouraged by the current generation’s lack of meaningful engagement. Redford has never had an easier role; being Malley means being himself, in a room full of books.
Back east, Streep’s dowdy, clever Janine Roth is fun to watch, but she’s still just an emblem for any journalist thwarted by an uncooperative Administration. And with his tireless grin and the American flag pin on his lapel, Cruise’s Senator Irving represents that Administration’s state of mind more than a human being. “It will work,” he tells Roth when she asks what happens if his plan fails, robotically echoing all the usual hawkish suspects.
The biggest archetype of them all is Todd the twenty-something. With his iPod headphones and Hollister fashion sense, Todd (Andrew Garfield) is the placeholder where every Millennial is supposed to envision him- or herself. Todd distrusts authority, and longs for a life of upper class comfort. As Malley’s most promising pupil, he causes alarm by showing up less and less for class. The professor summons Todd to a meeting on campus, tries to inspire him with tales of Arian and Ernest’s collegiate idealism, and presents him with a choice: to sit back and whine about the state of the country, or to roll up his sleeves.
Banking on Indifference
It’s telling that, for huge portions of Malley’s speech, we don’t even see Todd’s face. The protégé disappears so Redford can speak his lines right into the camera, heavy-handedly forcing all of us under thirty-five in the theatre to ask, “Who, me?” As Malley sees it, young people lost their fire ten or fifteen years ago, and politicians have been banking on our indifference ever since.
This would be an easier accusation to swallow if Redford knew much about my generation. He and screenwriter Matthew Michael Carnahan present Todd as the great young hope, but he’s the film’s most unremarkable figure by a power of ten. He slouches in his chair, exuding almost no signs of intelligent life. He addresses his professor as “Doc,” and describes the classic Greek philosophers as “awesome.” In the twenty-first century, we might wear baggier pants than our predecessors, but unlike Todd, the smart ones among us can still talk insightfully for thirty seconds without sounding like Bill and/or Ted.
We’re also less smugly cynical than the movie suggests. Todd stops caring because he thinks that politicians are “turds,” and that activism won’t pay for his mansion. Twice in Lions for Lambs, a student says something idealistic only to be interrupted and attacked by a classroom full of acerbic pessimists—a phenomenon that occurred in exactly zero of my university seminars.
The truth is that, while we may not be as political as our forebears, or burn as many draft cards (there’s no draft for us to fight), those of us born after Nixon’s presidency are “involved” in unprecedented ways. We’re donating mosquito nets at malarianomore.org, we’re Teaching for America more than ever before, and the presidential candidate we’re most likely to support started out as a community organizer on Chicago’s poor South Side.
If Only You’d Ask
Redford and Carnahan could have avoided this mistaken characterization in any number of ways (actually talking to a college student seems like a good one), and the fact that they didn’t proves what they really think of today’s young adults. Ditto for their belief that we’d need Todd the stand-in to catch their drift.
Redford’s speech encapsulates much of what is right, and what is sadly amiss, about Lions and Lambs. The film does diagnose many of America’s biggest problems: a disastrous “war on terror;” incurious, often delusional leadership; substance-free cable “news” networks that run on hot air; the growing sense of political paralysis among America’s most recently minted grown-ups. And it delivers the admirable message that too many of us, young and old but especially young, aren’t working enough for change or making our voices heard.
But Lions for Lambs doesn’t ever give us the ethical goods in a way that we can get behind. It condescends, it patronizes, it gives us Todd, and an endless flow of didacticism.
What Redford should have focused more on was Arian and Ernest, the two twenty-something friends whose idealism propelled them to enlist, and who find themselves under siege on a snowy mountainside. As Taliban fighters approach in the swirling darkness, the disoriented soldiers are faced with the question of whether all of this has been for the best, and they struggle to see who their enemies are—a powerful symbol for what it really means to be young and confused in America, and it was under Redford’s nose the whole time.