This moment in time offers many quandaries for future historians. Why did the media roll over and fail to challenge the Bush-Cheney administration in the run-up to the war in Iraq? Why is a Democratic-controlled Congress so cowed by a president with some of the lowest approval ratings in history? And why aren’t the current crop of anti-war movies more compelling?
Coming on the heels of the disastrous “Rendition” comes “Lions for Lambs,” a film with enough good intentions to build a superhighway to Movie Hell. Director and co-star Robert Redford obviously has passionate feelings about the War on Terror and what it’s doing to our youth, to the media, etc., but “Lions” plays like the kind of movie that your civics teacher would show you in seventh grade, stopping occasionally to ask questions like “Why would the senator confide in the journalist?” or “Why does the college professor question his students’ willingness to join the Army?”
The senator in this case is rising GOP star Jasper Irving (Tom Cruise), who has called reporter Janine Roth (Meryl Streep) to his chambers for a full hour of chat on a new initiative that should help guarantee victory in Afghanistan. Roth is, of course, skeptical, but she’s obviously thrilled to be given exclusive access to — not to mention a full hour with — the senator.
As they speak, the new strategy is launched, and we see it implemented through the eyes of two grunts, played by Derek Luke and Michael Peña. And while they get caught behind enemy lines after their transport helicopter is fired upon, their college professor and confidant Stephen Malley (Redford) is taking a meeting with a young student whom Malley feels has lost his eagerness to learn and to achieve.
So what we have here are two conversations intercut with occasional battle footage — and none of these three threads offers much in the way of narrative interest. Streep’s function in the film is mainly to volley questions to Cruise; she gets one meaty scene later on, with her editor at her cable news outlet, but it’s one of those Let’s Talk About the Way the World Is Now moments that screenwriter Matthew Michael Carnahan tosses clumsily and frequently into the script.
Cruise, unexpectedly enough, comes off quite well. He seems to have realized that much of his off-screen behavior of recent years has made him look smarmy and untrustworthy in the eyes of the public, so playing a slick and shallow political huckster actually plays to his strengths.
Director Redford has unfortunately saddled actor Redford with the weakest parts of the script; we don’t particularly care if his student comes back to class or not, and his scenes with his war-bound students feel like the interaction of ideologies and not of characters. The absence of activists in the streets protesting the war in Iraq continues to confound; the empty seats at theaters showing “Lions for Lambs” will be somewhat easier to explain.