Working with a film: Lions for Lambs


The object of the following work is to connect this film to the social and historical conditions from which it sprang in American society. To this end the tools of literary analysis will be used to focus the students’ attention and provide knowledge of how the film was constructed and makes its points. You will find a review of these basic terms of literary analysis in the Toolbox on our website under Enjoying Fiction: literary analysis. These will include character, social setting, plot, theme/intention and audience.



The film Lions for Lambs from 2007 is 1 hour 32 minutes long. The title of the film is from a quote attributed to a German comparing the bravery of the British troops to the criminal incompetence of their commanders during the bloody battle of the Somme in the First World War – “Nowhere have I seen such Lions led by such Lambs.” This sets the critical tone. The picture is set in the same year as it was made, 2007. It takes part simultaneously over a period of about 90 minutes in three locals; Washington, D.C., California and Afghanistan. 

The three settings are bound together through the actions of two of the characters, Arian Finch and Ernest Rodriquez, students who have been inspired to make a political commitment by Stephan Malley, their political science professor in California. Their commitment was to join the Army and take part in the war in Afghanistan. They are in battle during most the film. At the same moment in Washington, Senator Jasper Irving is declaring a new plan to win the war in Afghanistan to a reporter he has called in for that purpose, Janine Roth. It is this plan which has led Adrian and Derek into battle. Finally, in California, Professor Malley is meeting with a very intelligent but cynical and apathetic young student, Todd Hayes, challenging him to become politically engaged in the world around him.


Cast of characters:

Robert Redford          -           Professor Stephan Malley

Meryl Streep               -           Janine Roth

Tom Cruise                 -           Senator Jasper Irving

Michael Pena              -           Ernest Rodriquez

Derek Luke                -           Arian Finch

Andrew Garfield        -           Todd Hayes


Getting started

Form groups of three. The film depicts recent American history under the administration of George W. Bush. Here are some terms connected to this time. What do you associate with them? If necessary, see if you can find information about them on the internet.

-         9/11

-         Saddam Hussein  

-         Tribal Areas - Pakistan

-         War on Terrorism

-         Waterboarding

-         Commander in Chief

-         al-Qaeda

-         Taliban

-         Operation Enduring Freedom

-         The surge

-         Rendition

-         Kabul

-         Preemptive war

-         Republican Party


Watching the film

Watch the film until the scene (6) in which Todd explains to Prof. Malley why he does not want to get involved in politics. After seeing the film this far, take a break, discuss the following points in group. One member of the group writes down the conclusions.

  1. You have now met all the important characters in the film. Which do you find the most interesting? Which do you think will be the most important to the film?
  2. Sum up what Senator Jasper says to Janine. What kind of impression do you have of him? Of her?
  3. Do you think the deal Prof. Malley offers Todd in the first scene where they meet is a fair one? Why is Prof. Malley so interested in getting Todd engaged in politics? Do you think he will manage to do so?
  4. We are told that Ernest and Arian have volunteered to go to war. What do you think of this decision?
  5. What do you think of Todd’s arguments for staying out of politics?
  6. Ernest and Arian are victims of an ambush. What do you think will happen to them?  


After you have seen the whole film

Keep the same groups and work with a least one question among each of the following headings.

A.    Characters

  1. Character is central to the development of films and plays. Have each member of your group choose one of the film’s characters and prepare a short explanation of what role they play in the action of the film. Compare your explanations.
  2. Major characters change during the course of a play or movie. Minor characters often do not. Which of the characters in Lions for Lambs would you rate as major and which as minor? Are we left in doubt about the development of any of these characters?
  3. Characters in films are often presented as “good” or “bad” persons. Can such easy distinctions be made here? How would you rate the characters on the following scale? 





B.    Setting

  1. The film has three physical settings – Washington, D.C., California and Afghanistan. Pick one and sum up your impression of this setting to a fellow pupil.
  2. How are the three settings connected to one another in the course of the film – both in terms of time, dialogue and action?
  3. What effects do you think the film makers were trying to make by contrasting the three settings with one another?

C.    Plot

  1. To find the plot of the film you must identify the central conflict(s) in it. This film has three settings. What is the major conflict in each of the three settings?
  2. Is there a general conflict that connects all three plots; that is, is central to the action of the film as a whole?
  3. Plot (conflict) sets up the action of a film, keeping the attention of the audience. Did you find the plot of this film interesting?  Did it hold your attention? Why/Why not?

D.    Theme/Intention

1. Which of the following do you think best describes what this film was about?

  • Media influence
  • Making a commitment
  • Politics
  • Education
  • War
  • Loyalty
  • Honesty

2. How would you sum up what the film was about? Write down your individual answer in a sentence or two and compare answers in your group.

3. Have you seen other films which have the same or a related theme/intention as this movie? Make a short list and compare it to another group’s.

E.     Audience

  1. This film was intended primarily for an American audience. How can you tell this is the case?
  2. This film is critical of aspects of American society. Which aspects is it particularly critical of?
  3. Are there things in this film that a Norwegian audience might find objectionable? Why?
  4. Sum up what you believe you have learned about America at the time the film was made.


Before and after

Now that you have seen the whole film and worked with it, go back and look at your answers to Watching the film above. Do you wish to change your opinion? Were your guesses correct? What unexpected things happened?



  1. We are not told what happens to Todd Hayes. Complete his story. You can do this either in film dialogue or as prose narrative. If you use film dialogue, continue from the last line of the film when Todd is sitting in front of the TV and his friend says to him, “You do! You know what you’re going to get.” (PS – This statement has more than one meaning in the context of the film.)
  2. Take the short explanation you made of one character in question 1 under “Character” above and turn it into a full page character sketch about that person and his or her role in the picture.  
  3. Write a review of this film for your local newspaper, keeping in mind your local audience (who, of course, speak English for this occasion).
  4. Write a short report on what has happened in the war in Afghanistan since 2007. What role has Norway played in this development?