"Lions for Lambs" DVD Review
May 02, 2008 by Zach Demeter
Touted as big political film before its release, Lions for Lambs became a bit of a disappointment in the States, not even making half of its budget back in ticket sales and receiving a myriad of poor reviews. While it raked in more money internationally, the film, directed by Robert Redford, seemed to bleed theater goers as its short thirteen week visit to theaters came to a close. Although critics didn’t enjoy the film, there were plenty who did find something to enjoy in the films discussions on war.
Lions for Lambs branches off into three separate tales all told in the same ninety minutes, each detailing a different part of the war overseas, all strung together by the tale of two soldiers named Arian (Derek Luke) and Ernest (Michael Peña). After their political science class teacher, Stephen Malley (Robert Redford), inspired them to find a higher calling in their life, the pair decided to join the fight in Afghanistan, much to his surprise and dismay. Malley tells their tale to another one of his promising students who has been recently flaking off, while we see Arian and Ernest about to embark on a secret mission spearheaded by Senator Jasper Irving (Tom Cruise). Meanwhile Irving is holding a private interview with reporter Janine Roth (Meryl Streep) about the current efforts in Afghanistan and the new plan that is underway.
One thing you’ll realize about Lions for Lambs is that it’s very much focused on dialogue. While we see a bit of gunfire and action in Afghanistan, even there Arian and Ernest are focused on discussing the tasks at hand. Back in the States, Irving and Roth are engaged in a heated interview to discuss his future plans in Afghanistan, while Malley is focused on convincing one of his students to continue coming to class and participating in the discussions. While you may wonder how any of these worlds are connected, the thin string of the soldiers comes into play near the movies end. This could be considered either excellent or poor storytelling, as we’re left wondering just why we’re watching three separate stories about three seemingly separate things until the movies just about over. On one hand it’s a mystery and on the other it makes you feel as if you’ve wasted your time trying to find some deep, hidden link when in reality it’s just a simple piece of story that hasn’t been revealed.
I will say that all of the film is finely acted by everyone involved. Cruise plays the senatorial role quite well and Streep as the weary reporter, tired of marketing the government’s spoon fed stories to the papers, has enough fire to stand up to what Jasper has to comment on. The scenes between the two are very well constructed, especially the quickfire dialogue between the two, which is easily the most interesting and entertaining aspect about their scenes together.
The Redford portions of the film and the discussion between him and his student, Todd Hayes (Andrew Garfield) are easily the most confusing of the three segments. Their discussions seemed very vague to me and aside from a teacher who wanted to see his student succeed, I’m not entirely sure what Todd’s motivation to come back to the class would be. Considering the film ends on him staring at the TV as he reads the news about Afghanistan on the scroll, I found myself wondering why I should even really care what decision he makes; his arguments for not attending class anymore are the standard “It’s all bull****” attitude that some college students have about the political environment, so why the film would end on whether or not he decides to attend the class he (or his parents, whatever) is paying for is probably one of the weaker aspects of the story.
Unfortunately for the film, the three stories feel so self-contained for so long that by the time they “open up” to let the rest of the world in, the movie is just about over. In many ways the film feels like it could have been a mini-series on TV, split into three nights of half hour segments. It’s interesting that the film happens in real-time, but it’s all so vague on the details that it’s hard to discern just what is happening and why.
Overall Lions for Lambs, while named off of a particularly interesting quote in the film from a German general (“Nowhere else have I seen such lions led by such lambs”), really doesn’t punch it up enough to warrant a purchase. The film makes for a solid Rental if only for the interesting ideas and dialogue exchanges between the cast, it stumbles too much in the other departments to be added to ones collection.
Lions for Lambs arrives in standard amaray DVD case fare without a slipcover or insert. Menus are simple and easy to navigate and the picture is a pristine transfer, with lots of detail and no signs of dirt, grain or compression. It’s certainly a robust transfer and the accompanying Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS tracks only help it. While the film is mostly dialogue driven, the Afghanistan war sequences come pounding through on both tracks, with the DTS taking the obvious edge.
Moving onto the extras for the set we first come upon a full length commentary by Redford, who goes into great detail not only about the directorial aspects of the film and the way he set up certain shots, but also talks about the themes of the film and the ideas he was attempting to get across. I found his discussion on the whole matter more interesting here than I did with his character in the college sequences; the more I think about it, they really should’ve left those college discussions out of the film.
The other extras on the set are few, but worth checking out. “The Making of Lions for Lambs” (20:49) has cast and crew interviews and contains your standard “Boy, they sure did great!” jargon, but it’s not tossed about too excessively. The only other extra on the set is “From Script to Screen” (8:24), which almost seems superfluous next to the twenty-minute documentary, as part of the making-of covered the script stage. Still, it goes into more detail about the transition process and will likely entertain anyone who is interested in the process. Trailers for the film as well as other films and a United Artists film reel (6:55) that showcases its history and films wrap up the extras for this set.
Overall a decent turn out in the extras, with the Redford commentary being the meatiest and most interesting of them all; I almost recommend just Renting the DVD for Redford’s commentary, as he neatly wraps up the whole affair in his own words, although the performances by Streep and Cruise are worth a look and listen as well.
Lions for Lambs is now available on DVD.