Well, after two weeks of Tom Cruise running around, punching guys, throwing grenades at aliens, and just generally living his best life, we hit our first lull. 2007’s Lions for Lambs is an Oscar bait wannabe that’s just absolutely packed with talent and still manages to just sit there begging you to react.
And Tom Cruise’s role is small. He’s part of an ensemble, which makes this our first Tom Cruise move that isn’t a Tom Cruise movie but rather a movie in which Tom Cruise appears. This movie is split three ways – Cruise plays a Republican Senator, Jasper Irving. His scenes are all with Meryl Streep as reporter Janine Roth. They talk about the war in Afghanistan. Robert Redford who also directed and is thus to blame, plays a college professor lecturing Andrew Garfield about his devil-may-care attitude with a cautionary tale of a couple of his students who ended up joining the Army and deploying to… Afghanistan. (Totally ignoring that there’s virtually no chance that a well-off young white man is supremely unlikely to find himself in a position where he has to join the military to secure his own future.) And then we also see those students, played by Derek Luke and Michael Pena, the only survivors after their helicopter is shot down. So if you’re paying attention, we’ve got Tom Cruise and Meryl Streep, plus the bad guy from Winter Solider, the second Spider-Man, Gabe Jones from the Howling Commandos, and Ant-Man’s friend Luis. It’s packed with Marvel people and that’s the extent of the entertainment value.
It really is a good cast. We even get Peter Berg and Kevin Dunn in there. And it’s well-intentioned, but there’s so little to it. The Afghanistan scenes have the potential to get exciting, but they turn out to be the two young men waiting for backup and gradually realizing that it might not arrive. So the big action is waiting. Pena and Luke are fun to watch, and in the flashback scenes kicked off by Redford’s lecture, they give the movie a lot more than it deserves. But the thing is, I can’t tell you what the Redford and Garfield scenes actually do. He doesn’t think Garfield is taking class seriously enough, but that’s a huge jump to “let me tell you about a couple of my students who joined the Army”. Does he think that if Garfield doesn’t pay enough attention in class, he’ll join the Army by accident? It’s genuinely baffling as a storytelling choice, except to make this a Message Movie. A couple of soldiers waiting to die in Afghanistan would maybe be a more compelling story, but that doesn’t leave enough room for speeches.
Further, Redford’s character says over and over again that he thought they were wrong to join the Army and that we shouldn’t even be in Afghanistan. Which is a fine and supportable stance to take but Lions for Lambs also wants us to see the death of these soliders as something meaningful and heroic when the rest of the movie tells us that this is a senseless waste. You can’t tell us they died for nothing and then also invoke soft-headed patriotism at the last minute. There’s a way to tell us this story, but there’s a weird Lee Greenwood sensibility that sneaks in and undercuts the point.
As for Tom and Meryl, well, there’s not much there. The important thing, which takes forever to get to, is that he wants her to run articles supporting a new Afghanistan strategy. She is morally conflicted about this, and we never find out whether she gives in or quits her job rather than produce propaganda. And that’s not bad. It’s an interesting angle to explore, but it feels so separate from the rest of the movie. And I’m not sure that would be scandalous in 2007. We’ve had years of the President advocating violence against journalists and encouraging people to drink bleach. Asking a report for a favor doesn’t even move the outrage needle. To be fair to all involved, nobody know where this dumb world was headed. It’s still not good, but they can’t be blamed for how ridiculous it is in 2020
All that said, the Cruise/Streep scenes are fun to watch. She’s maybe the most natural actress ever and he is anything but. Their approaches are so different. I don’t mean to suggest either of them is chewing the scenery or anything like that, but Streep comes in with this character fully formed and every choice is so deliberate and considered. Cruise is full instinct, playing Irving the way he plays Tom Cruise in his daily life. A guy who’s just got to turn on the charm and will maybe scold you if you don’t get on board (moments of this feel very much like that Matt Lauer interview) but gosh, he hopes everybody is going to walk away on the same page and feeling good about it. And it mostly works.
The thing is, for the first time in this project of mine, we have a director who doesn’t understand what Tom Cruise is good at. There’s a version of this movie that focuses on Cruise and Streep and really beefs up his role. There’s something to this charismatic but too intense Republican Senator here. It’s underwritten, but if Irving had been a little more Paul Ryan or an opposite-side-of-the-aisle Beto, Cruise and Streep both walk away with Oscars. There are a lot of people who could have played this character better, but just a little tweak would have made him a perfect Tom Cruise character. The Afghanistan stuff and the Redford/Garfield scenes are a mess, but this section could have been something really good. With a stronger script, the whole thing could have been a two-hander and it would have been mesmerizing. Instead, it’s Oscar Bait that didn’t hook any awards. It’s a missed opportunity.
Next time, it’s the action comedy with a small role for Cruise, 2008’s Tropic Thunder. Heads up – it’s not as funny as you thought it was twelve years ago.