Flop. Clunker. Bomb. These words have all been used to describe the film Lions for Lambs, but I didn’t know all of that when I watched it, nor did I care, thank goodness.
The critics were spot on in terms of the movie not having a wide reach; trying to say something sobering about the world we live in, but not quite reaching it’s goal; and not delving deeply enough into the soul of the characters — Tom Cruise’s character, Senator Jasper Irving, being faulted most as superficial. However, California college professor (Dr. Malley), who’s played by Robert Redford is most engaging.
Trying to bore through apathy and reshape it into action and positive conviction is hard work. Just ask parents or counsellors who work with young adults. Still, some, like Professor Malley, see it as their calling. He fancies himself a “salesman,” selling students on their inherent worth.
His student, effectively played by Todd Hayes (Andre Garfield), has become disenchanted with his major and tells the professor that among other things, there is no science to political science. It all boils down to winning, and all the scheming and posturing it takes to do so. Ironically, while he suggests that doing the minimum and working the system is loathsome in politics, he doesn’t extend that criticism to his personal life.
Nevertheless, if you can’t stand that kind of behaviour in politics, what is the answer? To “bitch and quit?” as Malley asks Hayes, or to take some kind of action, even if it involves risk, to get involved and make things better?
Malley knows that sometimes people take bigger risks than you would advise or expected, just as his students Ernest (Michael Peña), and Arian (Derek Luke) do by enlisting to fight in the Afghanistan war; but it is to his tribute that though they disregard his advice, he continues to counsel others.
“My gifts aren’t my theories,” Malley admits, “but my ability to recognize great potential in others, and maybe give them a little shove when they need it.”
From experience, he’s learned that his self worth isn’t improved by the titles he holds, nor the theories he publishes, but by helping someone to begin living rather than merely existing. Teaching provides a pool for him to refresh his purpose and make sense of his world.
In addition to teaching those who are willing to learn, Malley also learns, because his students contribute to his growth. And looking at it this way, he has incorrectly described himself as a salesman; Impartial observer is more fitting to describe how his relationships with his students begin. Later on, depending upon the circumstances, he may develop into a counsellor, or talent nurturer, as he does with Hayes, trying to inspire the young man before his “promise and potential” disappear.
This grey area of promise and potential is one which the film aims to mine, yet only vaguely addresses with the other characters. For example, Janine Roth (Meryl Streep) is believable, but appears frustrated and weak when up against the superficial and recycled Senator Irving.
The dialogue between Roth and Irving is a form of combat itself, and reveals the exact behaviour which leads Hayes to denounce his chosen field of study; still, it illustrates lost potential, and the effects of a mindless reverence for promise, which can be equally harmful.
Lions for Lambs is meant to teach and inspire, and for those who aren’t averse to copious dialogue, it can reach its goal. Just forgive the almost superficial and trite war scenes, which help to make the film feel disjointed; But don’t miss the passion of those who believe in a collective responsibility to inspire and inform others.