What this movie is going to be about is evident from the start because they telegraph it with a flare gun. We fade in to the latest casualty report from Iraq. It's bad news, the report and the movie, really a filmed polemic that gives new meaning to the term "talkie." Here Hollywood liberals showcase their incoherence and fondle their favorite incantation.
In Lions for Lambs, the war on terror is nothing more than a replay of Vietnam. Ambitious, warmongering politicians are sending kids, especially blacks and latinos, to die in fields afar, victims of inept strategy and an overextended, racist, and imperialistic nation that has had its day. How to dramatize, that is the question.
The movie may be about the war on terror but viewers don't get to see terror in action, say a live beheading on a website, or even footage of 9/11. They only hear characters talking about terror, and that won't cut it in cinema. As Richard Grenier used to say, out of sight out of mind is the easiest way to stack the deck. The actual terrorists remain shadowy figures whose islamofascist ideology gets no definition. The dramatic effect is to render the enemy illusory, as though the war is about nothing.
No so for Senator Jasper Irving, played by Tom Cruise. He has a new plan for Afghanistan, forward movement of special forces, seizing the high ground. He brokers this plan to reporter Janine Roth, played by Meryl Streep. She is a baby boomer, now 57, who cut her reportorial teeth on Vietnam. She leaves few sixties clichés unturned, and at one point even quotes the Who, "same as the old boss." She is an encyclopedia of anti-Iraq-war boilerplate, not even very good as that.
Cut to Afghanistan, where the special forces are on the move. Their helicopter – another Vietnam symbol – takes fire en route to en route to a supposedly unoccupied mountain, the result of bad intelligence. Two soldiers, Arian Finch, who is black, and Ernie Rodriguez, generic latino, take hits and fall to the mountain. They thus Symbolize the Way the War on Terror Victimizes Minorities, another Vietnam canard. See Guenter Lewy, America in Vietnam, for the real story.
Cut to "A University in California" – think Berkeley –where professor Stephen Malley, played by producer Robert Redford holds forth with student Todd Hayes. He is supposed to be one of the Best and Brightest but shows little evidence of smarts. Neither does the professor come off as particularly erudite, though he poses well and he sure can talk. He even explains the title, based on the view of German soldiers in World War I that the brave British grunts fought like lions for the cowardly "lambs," who commanded them. See the parallel? The conversation between professor and student makes little sense, but some realities emerge.
Arian and Ernie, it turns out, were two of Malley's students. They enjoyed much opportunity – athletic scholarships, for example – but then they volunteered to fight for America in Afghanistan. Professor Malley, who fought in Vietnam and was injured protesting the war after he came back, simply cannot understand what would prompt anyone to do such a thing for a racist nation that neglects the inner city and other sins.
Screenwriter Michael Matthew Carnahan has Arian and Ernie saying that, with military experience, they will be able to return home and do Many Good Things in line with a liberal agenda. If they come home, that is. Out on the mountain in Afghanistan they are both wounded and half buried in snow as the Taliban move in. Lt. Col. Falco calls in air strikes and mounts a rescue operation. Will it arrive in time to save them?
Cut back to Washington, where Janine Roth doesn't know what to do with this story. She is tired of swallowing the official propaganda that got us into this mess, and so on. Trouble with Iran is looming and Jasper Irving is hinting at nukes with his rhetoric of "whatever it takes."
Arian and Ernie are convinced the rescue mission will be late, which it is. They stand together in the face of the enemy. The Taliban gun them down while commanders watch the slaughter on the big screen. Music up with a swell. Message: join the Army and you are throwing your life away. Cut to Janine Roth, riding around Washington in a cab, tearfully observing Arlington cemetery and the White House. Todd Hayes still doesn't know what to do, despite the advice of Robert Redford, who wants him, and every member of the audience, to be a sixties' reenactor.
Utterly contrived and tedious to the point of punishment, Lions for Lambs is unlikely to satisfy even the most vocal critics of the war on terror. For those on the other side, this agit-prop even fails as self-satire. But it does serve as a reminder that, for the Hollywood liberal elite, America is always the villain and inherently bad – except, of course, for their mansion, Mercedes-Benz, and three-picture deal with Paramount. The film also confirms that there will always be a vast gap between that elite and those who volunteer to throw down with the Taliban.