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All the President's Mendacity

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Director Robert Redford ascribes the title of his current Lions for Lambs to an observation that German soldiers made about the British during World War I. The lions were the grunts in the trenches across from them whom the Germans admired very much. The lambs were the British commanders forever sending their men 'over the top" into withering machine-gun fire that cut them to ribbons. Bravery in the service of folly. Only Redford's film isn't addressing the past but rather America's present 'War on Terror" in Afghanistan and Iraq. Brave men and women displaying their patriotism in the sticky, deadly morass of Bush's folly. Written by Matthew Michael Carnahan, Lions for Lambs intertwines three stories taking place simultaneously. In Washington, veteran television reporter Janine Roth (Meryl Streep) interviews rising Republican star Sen. Jasper Irving (Tom Cruise), a West Point graduate who has captured President Bush's ear on military policy. Across the country on a leafy California college campus, political science Professor Stephen Malley confronts undergraduate Todd Hayes (Andrew Garfield) for lackadaisical academic performance. Halfway around the world, two American soldiers, Ernest Rodriguez (Michael Pena) and Arian Finch (Derek Luke) fight for their lives against the Taliban on an icy Afghanistan mountain peak.

The narrative, such as it is, gradually reveals the connection between these three events. Though he denies it, Irving is gearing up a presidential run based on a prospective victory in Afghanistan resulting from a new strategy he's convinced the Bush administration to deploy immediately. Because Roth has given Irving favorable coverage in the past, he reveals the broad outlines of his new military plan to her in hopes that she'll make it a top network story. Though visibly at the edge of professional exhaustion " she's obviously heard a lot of political bullshit in her career " Roth doesn't buy Irving's plan for a second and openly compares it to a comparable strategy in Vietnam that was supposed to lure the Vietcong into firefights they couldn't win, but did.

Rodriguez and Finch, it turns out, are in the spearhead mission of Irving's strategy, and things begin to go wrong before the plan even gets underway. Rodriguez and Finch, Hispanic and African American respectively, and as such emblematic of the disproportionate number of minorities in the military, are also former star students of Professor Malley. He once challenged them to become active agents for world change rather than use their high-priced educations (they were scholarship students) to join the class of Americans who choose comfort over involvement. Malley is shocked that Rodriguez and Finch responded to his challenge by becoming soldiers. But he admires their determination to act rather than merely observe. Now Malley is preaching the same message to Hayes, although what he actually hopes to accomplish remains vexingly vague.

Political junkies may get a fix out of this movie. The ideas are articulated with some skill and at least a feint in the direction of balance. Irving is charismatic and passionate. Unlike the unholy trinity of Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld, he's willing to admit the many mistakes America has made since the terrorist attacks of 9/11. And with infectious zeal, he presses the idea that victory can still be snatched from defeat's jaws dripping with the blood of our arrogance and incompetence. We've created an intractable mess in Afghanistan and Iraq. But no clear path out presents itself that doesn't deliver a worrisome blow to America's international stature and influence, on one hand, and result in sustained bloodshed between the opposing indigenous factions on the other. So one can easily imagine his appeal to people who urgently need to believe that an appalling mistake can be erased with bold action. Utterly polemical in purpose, akin to a Platonic dialogue, this part of the movie works well enough, as Cruise and Streep conduct their characters through the thrust and parry of articulate and informed debate.

Little else in the film manages much traction. We are coached to like Finch and Rodriguez, but in the end they seem pawns of their own foolishness. The windy exchanges between Malley and Hayes never cross the thematic finish line, and along the way Redford's earnest Malley seems to see a whole lot more in Hayes than Garfield manages to show us. Certainly intelligent and even thoughtful, the film nonetheless fails to break any new intellectual ground. If you're the kind of person inclined to see a film on these matters, you already know what the picture has to say.

Reporter Janine Roth (Meryl Streep) listens to Sen. Irving (Tom Cruise) as he angles to find a winning military strategy in Afghanistan and ride it to a bid for the Oval Office. - 2007 MGM
  • 2007 MGM
  • Reporter Janine Roth (Meryl Streep) listens to Sen. Irving (Tom Cruise) as he angles to find a winning military strategy in Afghanistan and ride it to a bid for the Oval Office.

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