"Lions FOR LAMBS" has some interesting points it wants to make about the collective complicity of everyone -- cynical politicians, lazy reporters, apathetic students, self-satisfied baby boomer intellectuals -- in the failure of the Iraq war, so it pairs a cynical politician with a lazy reporter, an apathetic student with Robert Redford (he makes a very unconvincing professor), and has them make them. Meanwhile, a pair of underprivileged but uncommonly gifted soldiers prepare to die heroically in an Afghan ice field as the white characters discuss the pros and cons of various philosophical positions.
A static chamber piece in which each of the characters stalwartly represents an opposing viewpoint, "Lions for Lambs" looks like a stage play and plays like a policy debate.
Redford directed the film from a script by Matthew Michael Carnahan, which intertwines the three stories in the hope of achieving some sort of dramatic synthesis. Tom Cruise plays a rising-star Republican senator named Jasper Irving, who offers a disenchanted reporter named Janine Roth (Meryl Streep) an exclusive story during a rare, one-hour interview. In return for this privilege, she is to print the story of a new, Irving-masterminded military strategy in which small platoons will be deployed in the mountains of Afghanistan to catch insurgent fighters crossing from Iraq through Iran to Afghanistan.
The commanding officers know the plan is a disaster, but it doesn't stop them from sending their soldiers into harm's way. Among them are Ernest (Michael Pena) and Arian (Derek Luke) -- who might as well have been called Best and Brightest -- former students of Professor Malley (Redford), who chose the Army over "any graduate school in the country" despite the professor's genial and not terrifically strenuous objections.
While Roth grapples with reporting her "exclusive" propaganda on her now corporate-owned station, and Malley devotes a whole hour of office time to rousing a smarmy and repellent frat boy genius (Andrew Garfield) into, like, caring, Ernest and Arian are impaled in the snow as the Taliban gains on them.
Redford and Carnahan would like us to ponder our role in their fate. And maybe we would, if the lecture weren't so dull and self-satisfied (however well-intended and well-taken). If it weren't for Streep and Cruise, looking like an old lion and a young jackal circling each other warily in the jungle, "Lions for Lambs" wouldn't feel like a movie at all. Redford may have played "The Candidate" once, but Cruise is a guy you get the feeling people will be voting for in the not-too-distant future.
MPAA rating: R for some war violence and language. Running time: 1 hour, 32 minutes. In selected theaters.