The State of the Nation: “Lions for Lambs”

On Tuesday, October 30th Stanford Film Society held an advanced screening of the Rodert Redford movie, “Lions for Lambs” in Cubberly Auditorium. The movie is a star-studded and nakedly political attempt to assess the “War on Terror,” and the apathy of American youth. The movie examines the historical moment in America, declaring it irrational, jaded, and even sinister. (“Rome is burning,” one of the main character declares in typical earnestness, “And we’re all fiddling.”) The movie has ample shortcomings- it can be a naïve and silly piece of Hollywood commentary- but it also touches upon some surprisingly thoughtful truths.

The move revolves around three related plotlines. The Republican “Senator Jasper” (Tom Cruise) has hatched a new way to win the “War on Terror” in Afghanistan, and has invited over a reporter (Meryl Streep) to discuss the plan. The Senator’s plans to have the Special Forces capture the “high ground.” On the same morning in California, a talented but lazy student is meeting with his political science professor (Robert Redford). Connecting these two plotlines is the story of two soldiers in Afghanistan. As shown in flashbacks, the soldiers were once talented students in Robert Redford’s international relations course. Then, fueled by a desire to make a difference, the students enlisted into the military. Now, in the movie’s present, we witness the idealistic soldiers in Afghanistan helping to carry out Senator Jasper’s new strategy. The film is meant to show the full scope and interconnectedness of the “War on Terror:” the planning in Washington D.C., the fighting overseas, and the repercussions back at home.

The scenes involving “Senator Jasper” and the reporter are the most political and the most grating. The first shot of the film shows a graph of plummeting Republican approval ratings. From there, we meet the Senator, and watch him argue with liberal reporter Meryl Streep during an interview. The Senator serves as a representative of the conservative agenda. He spouts off Republican talking points about the struggle for safety and freedom, the mistakes that were made but corrected, and more. But he is little more than a caricature. Robert Redford, for the most part, does not intend the Senator to have a complicated, rational understanding of the world. Instead, the movie portrays the current Republican agenda as a laughably simplistic mish-mash of “stay the course” and fighting “evil.” The Senator’s dialogue was often so stilted that the Stanford audience burst out laughing. To the movie’s credit, however, Senator Jasper isn’t all bad. He is a West Pointe graduate with noble- but wrong-headed- intentions. He even manages to point out the hypocrisy of many journalists by rehashing the build-up to the Iraq War, and saying, “We have admitted our mistakes- when will the media admit there’s?”

Much of the conversation and the movie come across as a collection of standard Democratic arguments. For example, Meryl Streep’s character repeats the mantra, “World War II took less than five years.” But clearly World War II was a vastly different kind of war. In Afghanistan and Iraq, America is fighting insurgents, not nation-states. Successful counterinsurgency campaigns took 12 years in Malaysia, 8 in the Philippines, and 30 in Northern Ireland. But this movie never strives to understand what truth may lie in the “War on Terror.” Instead, it has Meryl Streep crinkle her brow and act upset.

Meanwhile the story of the two soldiers —which involves a helicopter under attack, the soldiers falling out, a crash-landing, and the back-up too far away— is a seemingly fair portrayal, thanks to its grounding in real military history. During Operation Anaconda in March 2002, Navy SEALs were ordered to, as the film says, “take the high ground” on the mountain Takur Ghar. Through a series of mishaps, one fell out, rescue attempts failed, and his position was overrun as his comrades watched helplessly over a video feed. The film took some liberties–two soldiers instead of one, an A-10 providing close-air support–but the basic story is borrowed.

The third and final plotline should hit close to home for most Stanford students. It is the story of a talented but jaded college student meeting with his professor as played by Robert Redford. The idealistic professor hopes to impress on the student that he can make a difference; that the system is indeed messed up, but also changeable. Annoyingly, this lesson has a generational dynamic. “Lions for Lambs” often translates to a stern scolding by the Baby Boomers of our generation, the Millennials. The movie constantly implies the question, “When we were young, we fought against Vietnam and Nixon and affected change. Why is nobody fighting against Iraq, Afghanistan, and Bush?” Or, more broadly, why are modern youth so apathetic? While the righteousness of the Baby Boomers can be tiresome, the latter question is valid. Why is it that most Stanford students are not politically involved? How has September 11th, the Patriot Act, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, NSA spying, and a myriad of other things not manage to provoke a strong reaction (either positively or negatively) from college students?

The final scene of the movie is its best, and cuts to the heart of this matter. The jaded student, changed by his meeting with the professor, returns to his fraternity house and sits on the couch. Next to him, a fellow student lazes in front of the television, watching a report on out-of-control celebrities. He represents our generation, softened by lifetimes of prosperity. To the newly changed student, the self-absorption and privilege of his life is suddenly all too apparent. He is giving nothing back. After discussing the meeting with the professor, the other students asks the final question of the movie, “So, what are you gonna do about it?” The camera closes in on the newly inspired student, and suddenly the movie fades to black- before an answer is provided. The audience can’t help but ask themselves, “What should he have said?”

In this sense, then, “Lions for Lambs” does speak to something true about our American society at the moment. The burden of civic duty- particularly the burden of fighting the “War on Terror”- falls on the shoulders of relatively few. For a cause that supposedly amounts to no more than “the preservation of our fundamental freedoms,” very little of the nation is actually involved. The movie’s point, then, is a call to arms for Americans to get involved.

Scene after scene, the director makes clear that, in his opinion, America is on the wrong track. But, fittingly, he does not give us a completely black-and-white view of these national ills. Instead, the “War on Terror” and the apathy of youth are both issues painted in varying shades of gray.

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