With a title that alludes to incompetent leaders sending brave soldiers into the slaughter of battle, the film takes aim at the U.S. government's prosecution of the wars in the Middle East, showing three different simultaneous stories: a senator who launches a new military strategy and details it to a journalist, two soldiers involved in said operation, and their college professor trying to re-engage a promising student by telling him their story. The film was written by Matthew Michael Carnahan, and directed by Redford. It was released in North America on November 9, 2007, to negative reviews and disappointing box office receipts.
Two determined students at a West Coast university, Arian and Ernest, at the urging of their idealistic professor, Dr. Malley, attempt to do something important with their lives. They make the bold decision to enlist in the army to fight in Afghanistan after graduating from college.
Dr. Malley also attempts to reach talented and privileged, but disaffected, student Todd Hayes, who is not at all like Arian and Ernest. He is naturally bright, comes from a privileged background, but has apparently slipped into apathy upon being disillusioned at the present state of affairs. Now, he devotes most of his time to extra-curricular activities like his role as president of his fraternity. Malley tests him by offering a choice between a respectable grade of 'B' in the class with no additional work required or a final opportunity to re-engage with the material of the class and "do something." Before Todd makes his choice, he must listen to Dr. Malley's story of his former students Arian and Ernest and why they are in Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, in Washington, D.C., a charismatic Republican presidential hopeful, Senator Jasper Irving, has invited liberal TV journalist Janine Roth to his office to announce a new war strategy in Afghanistan: the use of small units to seize strategic positions in the mountains ("forward operating points") before the Taliban can occupy them. The senator hopes that Roth's positive coverage will help convince the public that the plan is sound.
Roth has her doubts and fears she is being asked to become an instrument of government propaganda. Near the end of the film, she informs her commercially-minded boss of her plans to call out the senator's new strategy for what she feels is a ploy, but is shot down. Ultimately, Irving's version of the story is run without the critical interaction. Whether Roth gave in and toed the company line or quit her job is not clear.
In Afghanistan, a helicopter carrying Arian and Ernest is hit by Taliban insurgents. Ernest falls out, and Arian jumps after him. Ernest's leg is badly wounded, and he suffers a compound fracture, rendering him immobile as the Taliban arrive. After a drawn-out gunfight, the U.S. soldiers run out of ammunition. Rather than getting captured, Arian helps Ernest stand up, facing the enemies and turning their empty weapons against them, an action which prompts the Taliban to kill them. The unit commanders attempt a rescue of the downed soldiers, sending A-10 Warthogs, but the weather, time, and distance interfere.
Hayes is then seen watching television with a friend. A reporter is discussing a singer's private life, while below runs a strip announcing Senator Irving's new military plan for Afghanistan. He suddenly falls quiet, contemplating the choices with which his professor had left him.Robert Redford as Professor Stephen Malley
Meryl Streep as Janine Roth
Tom Cruise as Senator Jasper Irving (R-IL)
Michael Peña as Ernest Rodriguez
Andrew Garfield as Todd Hayes
Derek Luke as Arian Finch
Peter Berg as Lt. Col. Falco
Kevin Dunn as ANX Editor
Matthew Michael Carnahan was inspired to write the script when, while channel surfing trying to find a USC Trojans football game, he saw a news report about a Humvee that had flipped into an Iraqi river, drowning about five U.S. soldiers. Carnahan considered it an awful way to die, and "couldn’t get past it fast enough", considering he was too indifferent, "talking so much and not doing a damn thing", and "the same hypocrite that I so can’t stand in our country, the kind of people that will flip right past the news to get to Access Hollywood". He first considered turning it into a stage play, but the military scenes, in particular the helicopter ones, made him turn it into a film screenplay. The character of Todd Hayes was inspired by Carnahan himself during college.
When Robert Redford read the script, he became very interested, considering it smart as opposed to Hollywood's many "straight-out entertainment" projects, and also tricky due to the three stories "that seem to be disparate but are connected and have to come together in a vortex at the end", and that needed to be represented in a way the movie "wouldn't be categorized as a lefty film". Redford considered that the movie's focus was for audiences "to be entertained in a way that made them think."
An Irish newspaper claimed that "The name of the film is derived from a remark made by a German officer during World War I, comparing British soldiers' bravery with the calculated criminality of their commanders". While several reviewers in the UK have criticized the film for misquoting the commonly used phrase of "lions led by donkeys", in an article written for The Times on the origin of the title, Brian Dimuccio and Dino Vindeni claimed that:
One such composition included the observation, 'Nowhere have I seen such Lions led by such Lambs.' While the exact provenance of this quotation has been lost to history, most experts agree it was written during the Battle of the Somme, one of the bloodiest clashes in modern warfare. While some military archivists credit the author as an anonymous infantryman, others argue that the source was none other than General Max von Gallwitz, Supreme Commander (sic) of the German forces. In either case, it is generally accepted to be a derivation of Alexander the Great’s proclamation, 'I am never afraid of an army of Lions led into battle by a Lamb. I fear more the army of Lambs who have a Lion to lead them.'
Though Lions for Lambs was the first United Artists venture since Cruise and Paula Wagner attained control, executives billed the film as a "Robert Redford vehicle." Filming began on January 29, 2007, and Redford considered the movie "the tightest schedule I’ve ever worked with," with barely a year between announcement and release.
Lions for Lambs is the first film under Cruise's and Wagner's new venture with film studio United Artists. MSNBC reported that Cruise was worried about how the film would perform, because of how the film industry would view him based on its success or failure at the box office.
As of 5 November 2011 on the review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, the film has received a "rotten" rating of 27%, based on 177 reviews. On Metacritic, the film had an average score of 47 out of 100, based on 36 reviews.
Film critic Roger Ebert gave it two and a half stars, noting that at the beginning of the film the viewer is "under the delusion that it's going somewhere." As the film progresses, Ebert wrote that interest is lost, noting, "When we begin to suspect it's going in circles, our interest flags." Matt Pais of the Chicago Tribune also gave the film two and a half stars, and wrote in summation: "Redford and Streep give it their all, but Cruise is Cruise, and the go-nowhere 'Lions' is more of an imitation of life than a reflection on it." A USA Today review gave the film two and a half stars as well, in a negative review titled: "As entertainment, 'Lions' whimpers rather than roars." Reviewer Claudia Puig commented, "Though characters make some strong points, the film feels preachy and falls flat as entertainment." The New York Post gave the film one and a half stars, and did not recommend it, writing: "...if you want to be bored by pompous-assery, 'Meet the Press' is free." The Guardian was more critical, giving the film only one star, and calling it, "...a muddled and pompous film about America's war on terror."
Derek Elley of Variety wrote that though the film was "star-heavy", it felt like "the movie equivalent of an Off Broadway play," and "uses a lot of words to say nothing new." The New York Times also mentioned the amount of dialogue in the film, writing: "It’s a long conversation, more soporific than Socratic, and brimming with parental chiding, generational conflict and invocations of Vietnam," and the Los Angeles Times described the lecturing in the film as "dull and self-satisfied." The subtitle of the review in the Los Angeles Times was: "As a matter of policy, 'Lions for Lambs' doesn't play." In a review entitled "Political drama feels more like a lecture" in The Boston Globe, Wesley Morris wrote: "It does not feel good to report that a movie with Robert Redford, Meryl Streep, and Tom Cruise makes the eyelids droop. But that's what 'Lions for Lambs' does." Writing in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, reviewer William Arnold wrote positively of the segments of the film involving Robert Redford's character: "His character, who hopes to save America one slacker at a time, rings true; and his real-life conviction and his fears for democracy come through." Amy Biancolli of the Houston Chronicle highlighted Redford's direction of the film, commenting that it was not his best film, but it was "his bravest." Ray Bennett of The Hollywood Reporter described Lions for Lambs as "...a well-made movie that offers no answers but raises many important questions."
The film took in USD6.7 million in its opening weekend and debuted at the number four spot. This was one of Cruise's worst wide opener box office takes since The Color of Money, and Cathering Elsworth of The Daily Telegraph wrote that this result "puts it on course to be Cruise's lowest-grossing movie of all time." The film also opened poorly in Europe, with Variety reporting: "Savage reviews dealt the talky political drama a big blow." In the United Kingdom, Lions for Lambs took in $1.4 million and opened in sixth place. The film debuted at the number six spot in Germany, and number five in Brazil. Overall, the film pulled in a total of $10.3 million in markets in its opening weekend outside the United States, and Reuters noted "Tom Cruise's 'Lambs' got slaughtered at the worldwide box office." By January 14, 2008, the film's domestic returns were just under $15 million.
MSNBC reported that Cruise was concerned about the opening weekend results, and quoted a source: "Tom wanted to really hit a home run with his first United Artists movie. It was more about how the industry was going to view him than the movie going public that Tom was worried about." In response to the opening weekend results, a representative at United Artists stated: "We performed right at the pre-weekend predictions and are glad to have done that. Given the modest production and marketing budgets we do not need to be a blockbuster hit. Everyone at United Artists are very proud of the film and could not have had a more perfect filmmaker to have made our first film."
International experts said that the film did not attract its core audience, and that the box office results were due to a failure of the film to cross over to the general public. On November 28, 2007, The Wall Street Journal reported that "Lions for Lambs has performed so poorly that it may not make back its $35 million investment." On December 3, 2007, the New York Post reported that the film was "assessed to blow as much as $25 mil", and a report in Variety made the same assessment. Multiple sources have referred to the film as a "box office bomb", including the San Francisco Chronicle, U.S. News & World Report, Orlando Sentinel, the New York Post, and New York magazine. New York magazine called the film "a critical flop and a box-office bomb", and a report by NewsMax Media characterized it among "miserable box-office flops". An article in The Daily Telegraph discussed the film among a "slew of new movies" that "have flopped at the box office". The Associated Press called the film a "box-office clunker". The film ultimately grossed $63 million worldwide, which included $15 million for its domestic gross and $48 million internationally.