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Sep 21 2018

Months of Meryl: Lions for Lambs (2007)

JohnandMattheware watching every single live-action film starring Meryl Streep.

#38 —Janine Roth,a liberal network journalist faced with an ethical quandary.

JOHN:When Meryl Streepacceptedher Golden Globe for The Devil Wears Prada in January 2007,she divulged a prophecy: "This has been such a fun year to watch movies because of you gals,"she said,citing fellow nominees like Annette Bening,Toni Collette,and Beyoncé."[It] makes you want to cry with gratitude… until next year."How could Streep have known that her 2007 would contain some of the most insipid and unwatchable films of her entire career?

In Robert Redford'sLions for Lambs,Streep switches sides fromRendition,her previous War on Terror drama,playing Janine Roth,an investigative journalist given an exclusive scoop by a hawkish,right-wing senator named Jasper Irving (Tom Cruise) about a new military tactic being deployed in Afghanistan.BecauseLions for Lambswas made under the same misguided inspiration of everything-is-connected political narratives likeBabel,Crash,andRendition,Streep and Cruise's conversation is just one of three narrative threads...

The second involves a painfully,sophomorically scripted office hours appointment between a political science professor (Redford) and his "brilliant"yet apathetic frat boy student,played by Andrew Garfield.Further connected to this is the film's third storyline,that of Redford's previous,equally gifted students (Derek Luke and Michael Peña),who,rather than enroll in graduate school,enlist in the army,only to end up ambushed by the Taliban on Irving's mission.

Lions for Lambsdeludes itself with these often embarrassing juxtapositions,continually cutting between three stories that never cohere or enlighten one another.The politics it presents from across the spectrum were,in 2007,crushingly obvious to anyone with even a basic knowledge of current events.The film's most intriguing angle involves Streep and Cruise,their hour-long conversation a standard set of arguments about military intervention in the Middle East you'd have at your dinner table,only these two are dressed up with important roles that lend weight to their debates.Cruise's senator posits that although Janine and her fellow left-wing journalists now decry the invasion of Iraq,her comrades are as culpable as those on the right for ushering American entry into the war,accusing her side of not properly vetting government claims while cashing in on the paranoid patriotism that respectable media outlets peddled to their audiences.When the senator later relays his new initiative to invade Afghanistan,professing the mission as a pivotal,necessary advance in the War on Terror,Janine cannot help but doubt the legitimacy of his claims,even though it offers her a major scoop.The character is ultimately left with a conundrum: break the story irregardless of the validity of Irving's bombastic claimsorpass up announcing a huge military development,however dubious its logic?

Streep's is a timid and nondescript performance,a decidedly unshowy feat of interviewing,which comprises the bulk of her performance,that nonetheless feels as simplistic and routine as any news anchor on a primetime special.While grilling Cruise,Streep cycles through a catalog of skeptical glances,continually widening her eyes and diligently taking notes from across his desk,her tone and body language completely dull and predictable.Janine's ethical quandary toward the film's end offers Streep a chance to deepen the character as something more than a mere figurehead,and yet her lashing out at her editor (Kevin Dunn) is too agitated and jittery,in need of some shaping from behind the camera.What do you think of Streep's substantial yet,to my mind,slender performance?Does she make the most out of what is essentially a favor to her old pal Redford?

MATTHEW: Streep is immediately at a disadvantage in Lions for Lambs because of the simple truth that no one will ever interrogate Tom Cruise on screen better than April Grace,who cut the actor down to size with such coolheaded composure in Magnolia eight years prior.Then again,it is clear from the outset that Streep's Janine Roth isn't quite as confident a cross-questioner as Grace's Gwenovier.Screenwriter Matthew Michael Carnahan's diffuse storytelling instead tasks Streep with exhibiting the constant shifts in Janine's increasingly shaky understanding of her role as journalist,but with little concern for anything approximating an inner life,aside from her assumed,unexplained liberalism.The character,as written,is not so much a human being as a mouthpiece for the left,which forces Streep to actively suggest more with her voice and physicality than Carnahan's rote words and Redford's colorless direction can possibly manage.

Streep's speech evinces deeply-ingrained skepticism,but her face and body appear enticed by Cruise's charisma.She remain in contained but near-constant motion,as though in defiance of her co-star's zen stillness.This skittishness sometimes evokes complicated,in-character reflections —How personal do I make this?Do I dare admit any complicity in selling this war or the rise of powerful,dangerous men like Irving?— but mostly it just evokes skittishness.Redford struggles to make this segment cinematic,hence multiple close-ups of Streep's jotting pen on paper and one too many shots of an ominously ticking clock.But he also fails to give Streep and Cruise any guidance on how to necessarily modulate this clash of wills and principles,allowing his two marquee actors to appear woefully under-directed,reigned in by his drably oppressive solemnity and forced to coast on their own specific strengths.Cruise gets by on his piranha-like toothiness,while Streep decides on a light touch,refusing to sweat this tête-à-tête or over-engage her emotions and intellect.And that's precisely the problem with the actress' work here: for the first time,Streep — a performer inclined,often sublimely,toward a more-is-more approach — simply doesn'tgiveenough.

The performance can thus be boiled down to a practical pattern of choices:stare,squint,nod,turn gaze inward,scribble something down,look back up,and then repeat.(Streep is surely lit brightly enough to let no micron of doubt go uncaptured,whereas Luke and Peña,the two actors most successful at casually selling the fundamental convictions of their characters,are deplorably underlit by experienced cinematographer Philippe Rousselot throughout the majority of their scenes.) This meeting of stars remains far too chummy on the surface and never quite intensifies,inhibiting Streep from going toe-to-toe with Cruise,who does the bulk of the speechifying.Streep certainly takes more risks in her dialogue with Dunn,finally freed from the role of listener and able to actually lead a scene.As Janine weighs the moral implications of impartially reporting on yet another war-extending military offensive,Streep responds almost too excitably to the occasion,squirming free from her coat like it's in flames and raising her voice with a volcanic intensity that feels utterly out of place in this mundane office environment and seems to surprise even her scene partner.The effect is that the performance itself overshadows the character's central dilemma;instead of dramatizing a reporter's inability to stomach the blind patriotism of the times,the moment becomes about Streep Unleashed.By the time Redford reaches Janine's farewell scene,a teary,wordless cab ride through D.C.,we seem to be standing as far outside the character as we did when she first bustled onto the screen with her bags and notepad.And yet what is perhaps most disconcerting is that Streep's proximity appears only marginally closer.

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Reader Comments (7)

April Grace in Magnolia can never be mentioned or praised enough.What a performance.

Great write up of a terrible film.

Roll on Doubt - one of my favourite Streep performances despite being one of her most divisive...

September 21,2018 | Unregistered Commenterkermit_the_frog

It was a poor year for Streep in the movies.

September 21,2018 | Unregistered Commenterrdf

Good write up.I remember being so excited that Streep and Cruise would be in a movie together

September 21,2018 | Unregistered CommenterJamie

This movie (sadly) confirmed my belief that Robert Redford is a terrible director.The dialogue is so stilted that I literally felt bad for Streep and Cruise having to recite it,and I could only maybe only watch 5-10 minutes of this movie before turning it off.It's too bad Cruise and Streep did not appear together in Minority Report (but Lois Smith did such a great job in that film,and clearly Cruise and Streep are unstoppable).

September 21,2018 | Unregistered CommenterTom Ford

I'm in the minority….Nah,practically I'm alone,but for me this film is underrated.Esp.Meryl and Tom are great,as the Scenes are with Redford and his Student.The dialogues are really interesting and forceful.
"You helped us to sell the Problem,now you have to sell the solution."
Maybe it just hit me right.
The ending is also spot on imo.

September 22,2018 | Unregistered CommenterSonja

This is the only live action film of Streep's that I have never watched.I started it but lost interest and never finished.It's s shame as Redford is a good director given the right material ( and he considered Meryl for the Beth Jarrett role in Ordinary People but she was too young).And I would love to see Meryl act opposite Andrew Garfield someday.

At least it's all pretty much uphill from here (in my opinion,though I know there will be many who did not enjoy Meryl in Doubt,August and especially Mamma Mia!)

September 22,2018 | Unregistered CommenterBC

Rewatch Doubt everyone : she is fabulous in it.

September 22,2018 | Unregistered CommenterMichael R

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