Less a war drama than a set of dueling position papers, Robert Redford's Lions for Lambs may be the gabbiest movie ever made about American foreign policy—and it wasn't even written by Aaron Sorkin. Hot young screenwriter Matthew Michael Carnahan is fresh off his alpha-male script for The Kingdom, which would explain the presence early on in Lions for Lambs of that movie's director, Peter Berg, striding around Afghanistan in a buzz cut and stiff upper lip, barking bytes from Von Clausewitz and imploring his noticeably minority foot soldiers to show the enemy "the full measure of American mean." Compared to facing the meanie back home in Washington—a Republican hard body played by Tom Cruise in crisp white shirt, sparkly molars and oodles of blind ambition—the war zone Over There is peanuts.
We find the senator in his office, hectoring a tough old broad of a journalist in comfy '60s-liberal tweeds (Meryl Streep) about the need for a surge to end all surges in the Middle East. Dimpling away, she lectures him right back on the folly of U.S. warmongering, and to drive the point home, we head west to "a California university," where a world-weary professor and Vietnam vet (Redford) cuts a deal only a celluloid academic could make without losing his job. He promises straight B's to a disaffected failing student (played with cocky insouciance by the young actor Andrew Garfield) on condition he cast aside sloth to become all that he can be against the war.
For a movie so relentlessly bent on realism, Lions for Lambs is riddled with implausibilities. Would a rising young Republican with an acquisitive eye on the presidency choose a liberal reporter with the stubborn intractability of a Christiane Amanpour to push his latest war on terror on the American public? Are today's college youth really as politically lethargic as this privileged white boy? Would his star classmates, an African-American (Derek Luke) and a Latino (Michael Peña), having boot-strapped themselves out of East Los Angeles, chuck it all away and blithely join the Army in order to become the movie's conscience? "I did everything I could to stop them," the professor intones. "But I revered the reasons they went." Easy for him to say.
Known for making stately, linear films with lovely sunsets and 60 Minutes dialogue, Redford has none of the piss and vinegar, the technical bravura or the hip irony of younger directors making political films, like Stephen Gaghan or Paul Greengrass. His editing is artless, the action scenes listless and amateurish, the characters almost entirely representational of the political attitudes they strike. Researched, data-crunched and op-eded to the hilt, Lions for Lambs talks and talks and TALKS your head off—the movie feels twice as long as its trim 88 minutes—as it lumbers toward complete coverage of the state of our nation, slogging through another botched and unjustifiable war whose architects, supported by the media in their pockets, refuse to learn from history. aYou sit there waiting for the 9/11 speech, the unnecessary deaths, the gravely inconclusive ending, and it all comes to pass.
What can I tell you? The movie is awful—and also oddly touching, even adorable in its dogged sense of responsibility, its stubborn refusal of style. When you've seen as many po-mo, show-off movies as I have that use the war as a convenient peg on which to hang a thriller (including, as it happens, The Kingdom), there's something refreshing about a movie as earnest and well-briefed as this one. Redford is no intellectual, but I found myself unaccountably charmed by his lack of cynicism, his old-fangled desire to plead the case of ordinary people caught up in the reckless aggression of the powerful. Lions for Lambs may not be much of a movie, but in the face of such sweet sincerity, what's even a jaded critic to do but roll over and offer her tummy for tickling?