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. The guiding topic is America's current wartime engagements, and like similar movies it operates with a literal mind and wagging finger. When the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan started, I was naively eager that Hollywood would find ways to dramatize the conflicts' political complexities and personal toll. We're probably too close to get any real artistic perspective. The great movies about Vietnam either were not about the war or were made once it was over.
This time around, documentary filmmakers have beaten the major movie studios to the punch with hastily made, mostly left-leaning rants and mini-exposés that about 35 people have seen. In principle, Hollywood had time, distance, and money on its side to process the many tentacles of this imbroglio into compelling entertainment. Instead, for the most part, we're getting handsome-looking fictional versions of the docu-rants. "Lions for Lambs" is the gassiest yet.
Directed by Redford and written by Matthew Michael Carnahan, the story is divided into three sections that are shuffled into a movie. And as is the current narrative vogue for Important Movies, each part will have some higher bearing on the others. In one, Cruise plays a hawkish Republican senator who wants to start a new war, one rigged for victory, and Streep is the seasoned cable-news journalist he's summoned to announce it. In another, two young injured American soldiers, played by Derek Luke and Michael Peña, are trapped behind enemy lines in Afghanistan. And in the third, Redford plays a professor at "a California university."
The professor's most promising student, Todd, has taken a nosedive. So he's invited Todd to possibly the earliest ever office hours for a talking-to. The kick-off to the professor's anti-apathy harangue is unpromising: "Let me tell you about the last two kids who gave me hope." The actor playing him, Andrew Garfield, is suitably disengaged, as good as Streep with the PowerPoint dialogue, and a willing punching bag for the movie's jabs and low blows. But it might have been cheaper and more aptly symbolic for Redford to have replaced him with a cardboard cutout that said, "America's Youth." Of course, then another piece of symbolism would be lost: Redford appears to be trying to save a young, blasé version of himself.
The politics in Carnahan's script - he's the writer of the "FBI demolishes Saudi Arabia" action-thriller "The Kingdom" - are flung at the screen. Some of them stick. Some of them don't. He's got more beefs - the wars, the politicians who manufacture them, the media's pandering, complacent college kids not out rioting and protesting - than any bun can hold. There is also bogusness meant to be shaming. Those two stranded soldiers are our sacrificial lambs - one's from Compton, the other from East LA (his name is Ernest). And they're the holiest two in the movie, a pair for guilty liberals to think about while they push their carts down the Whole Foods aisle. A good movie lives in here somewhere, but after about 20 minutes, you realize, despite the good lighting, syrupy music, and Hollywood stars, Redford doesn't care whether it's good. He just wants it to say something relevant. This is a movie that likes the sound of its own voice.
The Cruise-Streep parts of the film actually work because there is push and pull, intelligent acting (Cruise does his shark thing well), and a nod to complexity. Redford uses staging that suggests real characters, not just positions. Cruise is often literally looking down on Streep, who, in turn, is forced to look up. Redford even chooses to have Cruise photographed from his folded arms up - he looks like a bust awaiting bronze. The debate in the senator's office is charged. Ideologically, somebody has to lose, and the loser wins a well-acted crisis. For a parched audience, this seems rather juicy. It's a tiny dramatic oasis.
Redford has previously found ways of channeling liberal righteousness into superior Hollywood entertainment. His 1994 television-corruption essay "Quiz Show" still rumbles defiantly. "Lions for Lambs," though, is less a movie than a series of lectures - the senator lectures the newswoman; the professor lectures the student; those two kids who gave Redford hope lecture their classmates; over at Bagram Air Base, Peter Berg, the director of "The Kingdom," plays a lieutenant colonel lecturing his troops. For good measure, Redford and his editor toss in close-ups of people, especially Streep, scribbling down notes. Several of the movies he's made have their chalkboard moments. This is the first to come with a set of fingernails.