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The Truth Behind 'Lions for Lambs'

By Lisa Pease
November 9, 2007

Editor’s Note: The Washington Post and some other publications are predictably panning Robert Redford's "Lions for Lambs" because it poses tough moral questions about the neoconservative agenda.

In this guest review, historian Lisa Pease finds the movie compelling for those same reasons:

“Lions for Lambs,” directed by Robert Redford and starring Redford, Tom Cruise, and Meryl Streep, opens this weekend. It is one of the few “must see” films of the year.

Through crackling dialog, splendid performances, and emotional sequences, the film seeks to elevate the national discussion not only on the war in Iraq, but on the Americans at home who have chosen neither to participate nor to protest.

The film’s Web site asks a question one must answer before one can enter: what do you stand for? The film itself asks a bigger question: What are you willing to do for what you believe?

The title of the film comes from a comment a German general offered in a letter during World War I. Impressed by the bravery of the British soldiers, if not their officers, who were often given their commission because of social ranking, not military prowess, he wrote, “Never have I seen such Lions led by such Lambs.”

And that’s the essential thrust of the film. Lions have put their lives on the line for a war that was sold by Lambs. Now, what are we going to do about it?

The film interweaves three stories. One features a rising young neocon star, Senator Jasper Irving (Cruise), who invites savvy journalist Janine Roth (Streep) to his office to bestow upon her a scoop regarding a new military mission in Afghanistan.

He offers her the story first because she wrote the article that put him on the political map when she called him “the future of his party.”

Janine suggests that was not necessarily a compliment, and they begin a battle of wits and rhetoric the likes of which we’ve never heard, and have longed to hear, about the war in Iraq, in Afghanistan, and possibly in Iran next.

The second story line involves a college professor, Dr. Stephen Malley (Redford), who calls his brightest—if most absent—student Todd (Andrew Garfield) to his office for a discussion about his future. He challenges him to engage, and not just in the class.

He tells him the story of two students who make up the third story line, Arian (Derek Luke) and Ernest (Michael Peña). Arian and Ernest were so bent on changing the world that they joined the Army in the hopes that, as minorities, they’d have more credibility to speak about society when they returned.

Malley talks of being torn by their decision. He was so disturbed by their choice, even as he so applauded the spirit in which it was made.

In the third story, Arian and Ernest are participating in the very action that Irving is describing to Roth: a covert mission in Afghanistan. They are part of a team seeking to establish a base on a plateau that would give them an excellent command post for the region.

But when their helicopter comes under attack, Ernest falls from the plane. Arian, his closest friend, jumps out so Ernest will not be left alone.

The narrative intercuts between Washington, D.C., where the fates of such men are too easily decided by suits and a lazy media; the California university where Dr. Malley fights to develop Todd’s consciousness; and the snowy mountaintop in Afghanistan where Ernest and Arian fight for their lives, thanks to the cumulative choices made by all.

The dialog presents a masterful dissection of the rhetoric of war, from multiple viewpoints, and challenges the public’s apathy on the subject. As Geoff Boucher of the Los Angeles Times noted, the film is about “conservatives who care too much about winning and liberals who don't care enough about losing.”

The film is also about how we make choices daily, whether we realize them as we make them or not, and how those choices can have tremendous consequences down the line.

“Lions for Lambs” challenges each of us to live more consciously, to make deliberate choices, rather than to sit back and let choices be made for us through our passivity.

The compelling characters of Ernest and Arian remind us that the stakes are so high and the consequences so enormous they demand we challenge ourselves to reach past our comfort zones to take action on what we believe.

Godot isn’t coming. Our fate rests in our collective hands. It’s time to engage, in whatever way is meaningful to us. Supporting such a message by attending this film would be a good start.

Lisa Pease is a historian who has studied the JFK assassination and other enduring political mysteries.

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