×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Lions for Lambs

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."

With:
Dr. Stephen Malley - Robert Redford Janine Roth - Meryl Streep Sen. Jasper Irving - Tom Cruise Ernest Rodriguez - Michael Pena Todd Hayes - Andrew Garfield Wirey Pink - Peter Berg Howard - Kevin Dunn Arian Finch - Derek Luke

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.

Popular on Variety

Lions for Lambs

Production: An MGM release of a United Artists presentation of a Wildwood Enterprises, Brat Na Pont Prods., Andell Entertainment production. Produced by Robert Redford, Matthew Michael Carnahan, Andrew Hauptman, Tracy Falco. Executive producer, Daniel Lupi. Directed by Robert Redford. Screenplay, Matthew Michael Carnahan.

Crew: Camera (Deluxe color, Panavision widescreen), Philippe Rousselot; editor, Joe Hutshing; additional editing, Paul Hirsch; music, Mark Isham; production designer, Jan Roelfs; art director, Francois Audouy; costume designer, Mary Zophres; sound (SDDS/Dolby Digital/DTS Digital), Petur Hliddal, Richard Hymns; sound designer, Frank Eulner; visual effects supervisor, Joseph Grossberg; associate producer, William Holderman; assistant director, Adam Somner; casting, Avy Kaufman. Reviewed at London Film Festival (Gala), Oct. 22, 2007. (Also in Rome, AFI Los Angeles film festivals.) MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 92 MIN.

Cast: Dr. Stephen Malley - Robert Redford Janine Roth - Meryl Streep Sen. Jasper Irving - Tom Cruise Ernest Rodriguez - Michael Pena Todd Hayes - Andrew Garfield Wirey Pink - Peter Berg Howard - Kevin Dunn Arian Finch - Derek Luke

More Scene

  • Laverne Cox Charlie's Angels

    How Laverne Cox Landed a Cameo in Elizabeth Banks' 'Charlie’s Angels'

    Laverne Cox officially earned her wings, scoring a role in Sony’s “Charlie’s Angels.” But she revealed her cameo almost didn’t happen. When the Emmy-nominee heard that Elizabeth Banks was directing the film, the longtime fan of the franchise (and of Banks herself) reached out about being part of the project. Cox had previously worked with [...]

  • Lena Waithe'The Inheritance' Broadway play opening,

    Lena Waithe, Anderson Cooper Attend Broadway Opening of 'The Inheritance'

    “The Inheritance” pulls viewers in many directions — toward pain and hope, trauma and healing. It’s what brought stars like Andy Cohen, Anderson Cooper, Sarah Jessica Parker, Matthew Broderick and Lena Waithe to Broadway on Sunday — a chance to heal, to remember and grieve. Also in attendance for the premiere at the Barrymore Theater [...]

  • Cybill ShepherdTrevorLIVE, Show, The Beverly Hilton,

    'The L Word' Co-Stars Cybill Shepherd and Jane Lynch Reunite at TrevorLive

    Fans of Showtime’s “The L Word” will be happy to hear that Cybill Shepherd eagerly reprised her on-screen romance with former co-star Jane Lynch on Sunday night at the TrevorLive Gala at the Beverly Hilton in Los Angeles. While accepting the champion Award, Shepherd kissed Lynch not one, but twice. The “Moonlighting” star was recognized [...]

  • Rami Malek, Robert Pattinson and John

    Robert Pattinson Praises Fans for Raising Funds for Go Campaign: ‘It’s So Sweet’

    Robert Pattinson is giving back, but he’s even more impressed that his friends and fans are joining him in the fight. “It’s amazing,” Pattinson told Variety on the black carpet outside Neuehouse in Hollywood at the Go Campaign’s annual gala. “And they’ve done it every year. It’s kind of — it’s so sweet and I [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content