“Do you want to win the war on terror?”
It’s the central question of our times, one in which the answer not only reveals an individual political point of view, but also, if answered collectively, will determine the course of events in this so-called war. That’s what lies at the heart of Robert Redford’s new film, “Lions For Lambs,” where three sets of characters revolve around a new strategy to win the “war on terror” put forth by Republican Senator Jasper Irving (Tom Cruise.) He puts forth this strategy, which involves pacifying Afghanistan, to longtime reporter Janine Roth (Meryl Streep) who is skeptical, but still believes in defeating Bin Laden. The strategy is implemented while Irving gives his scoop to a shocked Roth, and it unfolds in Afghanistan, where a squad of American soldiers attempts to take a snowy mountaintop via helicopter. As the chopper comes under fire, two soldiers, Rodriguez and Arian (Michael Pena and Derek Luke), fall out the back and land in a snowy crag. As Rodriguez lay wounded and Arian, who jumped out to save him, is stuck in the snow, a Taliban squad is heard making their move from behind some rocks, to kill or capture the duo. Meanwhile, a college professor, Dr. Malley (Robert Redford), meets a student in his office and offers him a deal to come back to class, which leads to a political discussion, with the student giving his cynical view that all politicians just want to win office. “They announce their presidential candidacy with, ‘I’m not running for president,'” he says, to which Redford replies, “You almost convinced me.”
Dr. Malley reveals that Rodriguez and Arian were once his students, and that they joined the army to come back and change things. He also discloses that he is a Vietnam veteran, whose worst wound was from a beating by Chicago police in 1968 at a protest. Back in Washington, Irving tries to convince a skeptical Roth of the plan’s success, and then ends the conversation by saying, “I’m not running for president.” An angry Roth relays the entire episode to her editor as a rehash of failed Vietnam strategies repackaged as something new, and as she tells her editor of her plan to slam Irving, he makes it known that her job will be jeopardy. At the end, Rodriguez and Arian, out of ammo, stand up and raise their empty guns at the Taliban in order not to be taken alive.
“Lions For Lambs” is another of the message films coming out of Hollywood, in the same vein as “Blood Diamond” and “Syriana,” but unlike those two movies, this one may actually succeed. The dialogue and the exposition are smooth and natural, unlike the clichéd plot of “Blood Diamond,” and “Lions For Lambs” is based more in the real world, as opposed to the fictional country of Syriana. The occupation of Iraq exists in this movie, and the movie challenges the viewer to not fall for the lies, this time with Iran. Iran, in fact, is the unspoken yet acknowledged centerpiece of Irving’s strategy. He makes clear that isn’t the part of the strategy he wants Roth to report, and at the Bagram base in Afghanistan, the officer that explains the new strategy to his squad — Rodriguez and Arian included — points to Iran on a map without mentioning it by name, and says “you already know too much.”
At stake is history, or the lack of understanding, by policy makers like Irving. Representing the Young Turks of the Republican Party, he jousts with Roth as he defends his new strategy by talking about moving forward, while Roth, who remembers Vietnam, argues that she’s heard it all before. Jasper compares his strategy to the Romans, an obvious symbol alluding to failure, while Dr. Malley reminds his student that Rome is burning. The failure of Irving’s strategy is played out on the mountain, when Rodriguez and Arian are killed. As Irving, growing tired of Roth’s arguments, yells, “Do you want to win the war on terror?” Director Redford answers the question without giving a direct answer — no. Kudos to Robert Redford for producing a timely and well-made film about the inevitable moral and political failure of the “war on terror.”