"Lions for Lambs" is the closest Robert Redford, Meryl Streep and Tom Cruise will ever come to doing an off-Broadway play together. Some of the talk is compelling; most of it's gassy and reiterative; the chief interest lies in the scenes featuring Streep and Cruise, who offer a juicy study in contrasting performance strategies.
In his first film as director in seven years--his last behind-the-camera job was "The Legend of Bagger Vance"--Redford confounds expectations, not politically (it's as aching-liberal-humanist as you'd expect) but dramatically. The film splices together three scenarios. Scenario one, somewhere in California: In the university office of Dr. Malley (Redford), a longtime political science professor who fought in Vietnam, a talented but cynical young student (Andrew Garfield) argues matters of belief, idealism and citizenship with his mentor. Intercut with these scenes are flashbacks to Malley's class, set in the recent past.
Scenario two, Washington, D.C.: In the office of Sen. Jasper Irving, a rising-star Illinois Republican played by Cruise is honing his sales pitch directed at a seasoned TV journalist (Streep), whom Irving has invited for an interview. Irving wants to get her on board with his party's secret plan to amp up the war in Afghanistan. A verifiable "win" in the amorphous Terror War, he says, will remind everyone that America can serve as "a force for righteousness in the world."
Scenario three, somewhere in snowy, forbidding Afghanistan: Attacked by the Taliban, two soldiers (Derek Luke and Michael Pena) end up stranded and clinging to life on a perilous mountain ledge. Their injuries are grim, their prospects more so. Why these two joined up to fight is revealed roughly halfway through "Lions for Lambs." In its trim, static 92 minutes the result feels like "Playhouse 90" for the 21st Century, although the best of the "Playhouse 90" scripts found ways to enliven topical debates in terms of human conflict.
This one practically exhausts itself nudging the audience to engage, engage, engage. It's not easy. The dialogue sounds like writing, not talking. The script by Matthew Michael Carnahan tackles every huge issue hammering our country's sense of self, and sense of direction, beginning with the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (the I-word is uttered in the first sentence of dialogue, so ... good luck at the box office!) and the media's role in shaping, and selling, that war to a skeptical public. The Streep/Cruise scenes work best. Cruise doesn't go in for subtlety but he doesn't indulge in easy caricature. You detect in his flashing eyes (not to mention his perma-flashing teeth) the determination to keep up with his fellow performer. Streep, meanwhile, could play this role in her sleep, but she doesn't; she's very cagey in detailing the conflicted newswoman's amused skepticism.
Redford keeps the medicine ball rolling, though he shoots far too many of the exchanges as a deadening series of one-shots--first one actor, isolated in the frame, then the other, equally isolated. A rare two-shot early in the Cruise/Streep square-off finds the two characters chuckling at their respective opponent's conversational wiles, and it's a lovely moment. Why do you notice it? Because the actors are feeding off each other in the same frame, thereby allowing the audience to share in their enjoyment. This happens only rarely in "Lions for Lambs." What happened to the director who engaged us so fully with "Quiz Show"? That, too, was an issue drama, but it moved like a streak. By contrast, this is the sort of film where a character says "Here we are, having a high-minded debate ..." and you wonder if countless moviegoers will be rolling their eyes in unison.