this film has been panned by most critics for its somewhat redundant "do something about it" message and scathed even more by viewers because it is not a very entertaining film. however, i feel the criticisms of this film are only partly warranted. first off, films with exactly as obvious a message as this one have been celebrated in the recent past. crash and american history x are two well known examples. the mistake that redford made, most likely in striving to evade the label of biased, was placing the redundant message at the center of what was basically a film that should have been posed as a theoretical metaphor for the situation at large. given the archetypal nature of the characters in this film, the layout was present for this to happen. A movie could not pull a cast like this if it was a bad idea. On the whole, the awards-bait actors are highly educated and would have rejected the opportunity to work on the film if they felt it would fall flat wholesale.
the script has been the most criticized facet of the film. the critics say it is not only boring, but poorly organized. while the script forfeits the first point by its very nature, the second charge i feel is unwarranted. the error was the ambivalence of the director. rather than providing what was essentially a philosophical treatise on screen, he presented an ambivalent look at the war on terror which serves little other than to inform the viewer of the basic psychological stances behind the ideological camps. the poor choice of ending for the film and the unnatural nature of the classroom portrayed as the primary vehicle for ideological banter only detract from the film. being an american college student, i can tell you that no political science class cares that much about anything that is said, ever, and when they do, they do not normally engage in such debates, given that most of the students are incapable of informed debate in the first place and further do not care the least about the philosophical nature of the arguments presented in this film. in fact, political science is normally a major for low-testing students. this, of course, only makes the film more ironic and, in another instance of irony, more relevant in its inaccuracy. on a final note, in that class of what seemed like very bright and unafraid students (they are particularly quick to insult people in the middle of class), redford only singled out one of them as having ?true potential.? as an experienced filmmaker, i?m sure he notices the fallacy now, after the fact.
to describe the metaphor i speak of. while the discussions between redford and his student do provide some allegory, namely that the idealistic and nihilistic nature of his students represents a repetition of history in that these dichotomies existed during the vietnam war, the main vehicle for redford?s picture of the situation is provided by the cruise/streep scenes and the pena/luke scenes. the former serves a two-fold purpose, describing both the intriguing nature of the pro-war stance, as well as, more subtly, its hypocrisy. this second purpose is only gradually revealed and i feel it was well handled save for a few potshots in streep?s dialogue. the story of the soldiers in afghanistan, meanwhile, serves as redford's platform for voicing his largely pessimistic view on the prospects of the war, conveying the abandonment of our nation's finest by not only the misguided policy of bureaucrats, but also by the maelstrom of public opinion. in the end, redford sees the war as unwinnable. but he offers little in consolation or in admonishment. he merely places his view on the table.
while the strategy of the film has been panned, the acting of the film has been largely commended, and while none of these performances qualify as oscar-worthy, I feel derek luke especially did a fine job, and tom cruise deserves merit for out-acting meryl streep in what largely constitutes a one-on-one duel in terms of acting, though neither were really stellar.
in the end, lions for lambs is a film that ends up preaching to the converted in an ambivalent fashion, while at the same time making few sacrifices for the sake of popular understanding, a sure-fire recipe for a disastrous reception. however, on the basis of pure merit, lions for lambs is far from a poor film. it simply falls short of its potential.