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Movie Review

Three thousand, five hundred fifty-five soldiers have been killed in Iraq since the war began.

That statistic, delivered by a news reporter's voice in the opening moments of Lions for Lambs, serves as the thematic focal point for Robert Redford's first directorial outing in seven years. It's a dramatic—and didactic—examination of politics and war that interweaves three separate-but-connected stories taking place simultaneously in real time.

Story 1: Senator Jasper Irving is a rising star in the Republican Party. As a West Point grad and former intelligence specialist, he's the chief architect for a new military strategy intended to give America the upper hand against resurgent Muslim militants in rugged Afghanistan. It's a plan he's determined to sell to veteran TV reporter Janine Roth, who cut her journalistic teeth during the Vietnam War. She doesn't trust a word he says—and, in fact, rebuts most of them. But he's willing to give her the scoop on the new assault in return for sympathetic coverage. "When does it begin?" she asks. "About 10 minutes ago," Irving replies after looking at his watch.

Story 2: A helicopter full of Army Special Forces threads its way through the Afghan mountains en route to a tactically crucial 8,000 ft. peak they're ordered to occupy. But even as Irving tries to dazzle Roth with the glory of small, specialized teams like this one, the copter comes under unexpected attack. One soldier, Ernest Rodriguez falls to the landing zone below. And his best friend, Arian Finch, jumps out to stay with him until rescuers can arrive ... and to help him fend off rebels bent on killing them.

Story 3: At the behest of political science professor Dr. Stephen Mallery, a junior named Todd Hayes at "a California university" shows up for a little heart-to-heart about his bad attitude toward the class. When Mallery questions why Hayes has gone from model student to apathetic malcontent, Hayes unleashes a cynical monologue about the sorry state of American politics—and why girls, frat life and video games now mean more to him than his political passion once did. For the next hour, Mallery challenges the lad's self-absorption, provoking him especially with the unlikely story of two former minority students who were determined to make a difference: Rodriquez and Finch.

Lions for Lambs is built upon election-year-style speeches exchanged between the senator and the reporter, and between the professor and his student—even as Rodriquez's and Finch's lives hang in the balance, their willingness to serve their country at times illustrating and at times refuting the very points their countrymen are arguing about back home.


Positive Elements

As they argue for and against the war, both Irving and Roth challenge one another with valid arguments about the possible consequences of each person's point of view. Back at the office, Roth's editor leans on her hard to do a straight retelling of the basic information Irving has given her; but she believes there's more complexity to the story that needs to be reported. Whether or not you agree with her political position, she's shown to be a person of integrity who resists compromising her personal code of ethics for the sake of giving the government and her employer what they want. It's implied that she's willing to risk her job taking this stand rather than compromise her stance to do what's easy instead of what's right.

In a similar vein, Dr. Mallery labors to convince a deeply cynical student that he can still make a difference. Hayes is mouthy, profane and convinced that the only thing that matters is personal success because significantly influencing society is impossible. Mallery counters by telling him the story of Rodriguez and Finch: two average, underprivileged students who worked hard for their degrees and eventually decided that the best way to make a difference was to enlist in the Army. Even though Dr. Mallery (a hard-bitten Vietnam vet) doesn't agree with their decision, he respects the fact that they were willing to take a risk to do what they believed mattered most. In this sense, the film has a strong anti-war message, but it honors those who've chosen to serve and sacrifice for their country.

Near the film's end, Dr. Mallery scolds comfortable Americans for retreating into the safety of their wealth while, as he says, "Rome is burning." He points out that it's often those without privilege or influence who choose to take up arms in defense of the nation, and he encourages Hayes to ponder how he might use his gifts to serve his country instead of just serving himself and his own selfish appetites. As Hayes later watches the news of the new military initiative on TV, I inferred that he is considering signing up.

Finally, the courage to make a difference is powerfully illustrated by Rodriguez and Finch, two soldiers who put their lives on the line to defend America. Especially courageous is Finch, who literally jumps out of a helicopter to make sure his comrade isn't alone in enemy territory. [Spoiler Warning] Given the film's setup, it's no surprise that Rodriguez and Finch pay the ultimate price in the service of the Stars and Stripes. Their sacrifice and commitment to one another is deeply inspiring.

Spiritual Content

Sen. Irving says, "As God knows, it breaks my heart to ask our men and women to risk their lives." He also describes America as "a force of righteousness."

Sexual Content

As he lists reasons for his cynicism regarding contemporary politics, Hayes refers to politicians receiving "oral sex under the table" from congressional pages.

Violent Content

Rodriguez and Finch suffer badly broken legs and fingers (we glimpse the bone and blood of Rodriguez's compound leg fracture) after their helicopter is attacked, and the two soldiers' faces are bloodied as well. The snow around each of them is visibly red. As they await rescue, they are attacked again. The Americans shoot several enemy combatants. A number of others are destroyed by precision bombing runs. (We see the explosions, but not the bodies.) [Spoiler Warning] Determined to die bravely, the two men help each other stand up before they're finally gunned down.

Crude or Profane Language

Language is the primary reason for this film's R rating. The s-word gets used the most frequently, around 20 times. Characters utter the f-word about 10 times (including one paired with "mother"), and take Jesus' or God's names in vain about a dozen times (including four uses of "g--d--n"). About a half-dozen milder vulgarities are used as well, and a middle finger is raised.

Drug and Alcohol Content

Mallery, Rodriquez and Finch are shown drinking beer at a restaurant. A debate between students in the professor's class focuses on whether it's right or wrong for a community clinic to provide clean needles for drug addicts.

Other Negative Elements


Here's the thing about Lions for Lambs: There's a lot of talking. Irving and Roth spar from beginning to end. Irving is depicted as a true believer for whom retreat and defeat are unthinkable; Roth's challenges to party-line politics are equally sharp. Both characters are drawn as slightly exaggerated caricatures of conservative and liberal stereotypes as they express arguments for and against the war—arguments that will sound wearily familiar to anyone who's watched Meet the Press, Hardball or The O'Reilly Factor more than once in the last half-decade. Likewise, Mallery and Hayes go round and round until Hayes begins to see that maybe his professor has a point.

At times, I found myself pondering this person's argument, then the other person's. But as the film wore on, even though it has some genuinely positive themes, it just grew increasingly tiresome. The conversations kept lapsing into sermon-like speeches, making preachy the word that best captures the film's lawyer-like tone.

Of course, anyone familiar with director Robert Redford's strident criticism of the war effort won't be surprised to hear that his film takes the current administration's defense of the war to task—even as his character also chastises rich, lazy and apathetic Americans for ignoring the noble sacrifices made by men and women in uniform who are often much less well off.

It's worth noting that Lions' screenwriter penned this year's The Kingdom as well. Variety reviewer Derek Elley says of that connection, "Lions for Lambs plays like all the serious footnotes scripter du jour Matthew Michael Carnahan left out of The Kingdom." Anthony Lane of The New Yorker adds, "How can you explore the policy debate over Afghanistan, say, without having your movie sound like a policy debate? To judge by Lions for Lambs, the answer is: You can't."

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