Oh, but what it could have been. With a remarkable cast that includes Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep and Robert Redford, the film is as much a waste of talent as a political sentiment. Cruise plays Jasper Irving, an ambitious Republican senator who orchestrates elaborate military strategy from his perch on Capitol Hill. Hoping to win public support for his latest stratagem -- something about the mobilization of American troops in Afghanistan -- Irving calls in journalist Janine Roth (Streep) for an exclusive interview. The dialogue between these two oscillates between the banal and the improbably eloquent; listening to them blather on, I yearned for the movie to switch gears into something more interesting.
Be careful what you wish for. To spice things up, "Lions for Lambs" starts to jump between scenes of Irving explaining his new military strategy and American troops enacting it. In a parallel narrative, two soldiers (Michael Pena and Derek Luke) are busy shooting it out with the Taliban somewhere in the mountains of Afghanistan. With unbearable smugness, the film cuts from Irving talking about America's military invincibility to scenes of American soldiers fighting desperately to stay alive. Get the picture?
A third narrative emerges. At an unnamed West Coast university, professor Stephen Malley (Redford) sits at his desk trying to talk a student out of his newfound political apathy. Todd (Andrew Garfield) used to be one of Malley's sharpest pupils, but he has succumbed to the hip disaffection of his demographic and lost his will to care. He sits quietly in his seat, squirming uncomfortably and eyeing the clock as Malley harangues him about the importance of personal conviction.
The Redford subplot is all but irrelevant to the rest of the movie, but the point of its inclusion is obvious; Malley is to Todd what "Lions for Lambs" is to its audience: A finger-wagging pedant trying to goad an apathetic listener into activism. At least, that's the idea. But for a movie that wants so desperately to incite political conviction, "Lions for Lambs" is as dull as toast.
How could Redford, who directed and produced the film, have thought that such a talky, ponderous setup would inspire any kind of outrage or action? His movie takes potshots at easy targets like journalistic complicity and youthful complacency, but there's no constructive dialogue being offered here, just useless regurgitations of the same (admittedly accurate) talking points.
And that's really the greatest danger of "Lions for Lambs." At a time when the political stakes are so perilously high, Redford has offered ripe ammunition to neo-conservative rhetoricians, who will have no difficulty tearing his arguments to ribbons. Bill O'Reilly will have a field day with this film. Ann Coulter will eat it for breakfast. With its villainous caricature of a Republican senator and its shameless exploitation of the American military, this movie is exactly the kind of one-sided liberal propaganda that conservatives love to hate. I am in absolute sympathy with Redford's politics, but I dread to think of the backlash his film might trigger.
As a director, Redford's sole visual strategy seems to be thrusting the camera into the faces of his actors, creating such claustrophobic close-ups that we can practically count the follicles on Tom Cruise's chiseled jaw. Redford holds his own in front of the camera, but he forgets to rein in the rest of his cast; he lets Cruise veer too blatantly into smarmy self-parody, and pushes Derek Luke and Michael Pena into the realm of plasticized righteousness. Streep earns her keep as the film's outspoken conscience, but did the screenplay really need to assign her an invalid mother just to make sure we're on her side?
But I digress. "Lions for Lambs" doesn't pretend to offer any answers to America's geopolitical crisis, and that's fine. But the film doesn't really raise any questions either. Instead, it repackages the pain and frustration of our nation's historical moment into a slick, sanctimonious Hollywood product that will piss off anyone caffeinated enough to stay awake through it. In these dark days, Americans desperately need films that can approach our current conflicts with dignity and grace. We don't need "Lions for Lambs."