Talky, back-bendingly liberal but also deeply patriotic, “Lions for Lambs” plays like all the serious footnotes scripter du jour Matthew Michael Carnahan left out of “The Kingdom.” Robert Redford’s first helming chore in seven years, and his most directly political pic yet, amounts to a giant cry of “Americans, get engaged!” wrapped in a star-heavy discourse that uses a lot of words to say nothing new. Apart from the curio value of Redford, Meryl Streep and Tom Cruise headlining the movie equivalent of an Off Broadway play, this first outing by newly resurgent UA doesn’t look likely to roar its way to significant B.O. gains.
Schematic idea sounds bold on paper: three separate events, played out roughly in real screen time across three separate timezones, with each potentially cross-fertilizing the others. Problem is, as the cross-cutting proceeds, it becomes increasingly evident that each yarn exists in its own, very specific frame of reference, with no real human drama to buttress the moral-political conflict.
In Washington, D.C., veteran TV journo Janine Roth (Streep) arrives for a one-on-one interview with Republican young gun Sen. Jasper Irving (Cruise), who has an exclusive to feed her for his own purposes. Meanwhile, earlier that same morning at “a California university,” Todd Hayes (Andrew Garfield), a student who’s been skipping class, gets dressed down by his professor, Dr. Stephen Malley (Redford). Concurrently, a small force of U.S. soldiers is airlifted to a strategic mountainous location in the Afghan mountains to head off the Taliban.
In the early stages, the three strands are cleverly linked. Irving tells Roth the administration has a “new plan” to resolve the deadlock in Afghanistan: sending small groups to secure advance positions ahead of the spring thaw. When Roth asks when this will be implemented, Irving replies, “Ten minutes ago.”
Two of the grunts in the first group, Ernest Rodriguez (Michael Pena) and Arian Finch (Derek Luke), are former students of Malley’s. To try to break through Hayes’ lackadaisical attitude toward his studies and life in general, Malley tells Hayes the story of Rodriguez and Finch, both of whom enlisted in the military as a way to engage in their country’s foreign problems rather than just sit back and take the high ground.
In addressing the issue of the U.S. role as both world policeman and a credible force for good, Carnahan’s screenplay thus takes three clearly defined avenues of approach: the practical (Rodriguez-Finch), the political (Irving-Roth) and the philosophical (Malley-Hayes). All three avenues, however, lead nowhere in particular. The first moves from the gung-ho through military bungling to personal, useless sacrifice; the second through point-by-point confrontation to ultimate resignation; and the third ends vaguely, with only a glimmer of hope.
Most engrossing moments are generated by the political tennis match between the young senator and the cynical reporter. Both thesps are perfectly cast and at the top of their game, with Cruise believably incarnating a Young Turk who believes America’s credibility (as “a force of righteousness”) is now at stake, while Streep’s veteran journo is more interested in digging up past mistakes and Middle Eastern history.
The to-and-fro of their political debate gives both actors a fine workout, and plays to the strengths of their screen personas. But as Carnahan’s script dutifully checks off the issues, it becomes clear the discourse is leading nowhere, and is merely a rerun of arguments already extensively aired by media around the world. Roth has no new arguments to propose, and Irving’s only solution is more positive action.
Meanwhile, back in California, the talk is turning even fuzzier. Faced with Hayes’ continuing skepticism-cum-lack of interest in his country’s politics, Malley finally rounds on him with, “Rome is burning.” “So you’re saying it’s better to try and fail than do nothing?” asks Hayes. “At least you (can say you) did something,” replies Malley. Well, yeah.
With almost no character backgrounding beyond repping various schools of thought, the actors largely get by on screen charisma. Cruise and Streep generate the most sparks; Redford brings a relaxed, slightly supercilious, elder-statesman aura to the role of the mature academic; and young Brit actor Garfield is convincing as an unengaged SoCal student, though his character remains enigmatic to the end.
Production values are fine. Philippe Rousselot’s widescreen lensing and Jan Roelfs’ production design manage distinctive looks for the three strands, from the burnished, formal interiors of Irving’s office and the sunnier, relaxed campus quarters to the grit and snow of an Afghan mountaintop. Mark Isham’s score is low-key until the muddled finale of the military strand, when it slips into unseemly (and inexplicable) patriotic bombast.
As if to underline the symbiotic link between Carnahan’s two scripts, “The Kingdom” helmer Peter Berg pops up here in a supporting role.