Thumbs are of no use in talking about Robert Redford's “Lions for Lambs.” Sticking them up or down makes little sense. It's not that kind of movie. What kind is it? Pretty much without a category. Call it disturbing, illuminating, reality-based entertainment.
The time is the present, Bush II is president, there is an unending war in the Middle East, the setting is present-day D.C., everything looks documentary-realistic. It could be a Sunday-morning panel discussion, but the cast consists of a bevy of stars, performing magnificently, with a script that seems to be formed by headlines from today's newspapers.
At the center of the film is a lengthy, unlikely, but brilliant duet of a an interview between a veteran, nobody's-fool political reporter (Meryl Streep) and a young hotshot NeoCon senator (Tom Cruise), both utterly believable, notwithstanding the challenge of some lame lines by screenwriter Matthew Michael Carnahan for Cruise. Still, overall, the business between the two is the “people's business,” about the lethal foreign-policy bungling of a war of choice, now running longer than World War II. (These are not editorial comments, but rather a report on what the film says.)
While dissecting the Iraqi disaster, and hearing some surprising and obviously manipulating admissions of errors from Cruise's hawkish senator, the issue at hand is the senator — a key military advisor to the president — trying to steer Streep's skeptical journalist into “selling” a new plan of attack in Afghanistan, something she instantly recognizes as a throwback to failed strategy in Vietnam.
Alternating with the interview segments are battle scenes in Afghanistan where two Army rangers (Derek Luke and Michael Peña) are risking their lives in implementing that new plan. Then, by a stretch and rather awkwardly, there sits Redford's professor in his West Coast college office, pulling the story together between the two lion-like Rangers, who were his students, and a bright, troubled student (Andrew Garfield) who lost his way, baa, baa, baa.
Significant and entertaining, thought-provoking and reality-based sad, mostly well-written, and exceptionally well-acted, “Lions for Lambs” is likely to leave the audience with the feeling of having participated in an important happening, but perhaps not quite knowing what it was.
Gushing about Streep is almost embarrassing, but once again, she transcends text and expectations, giving a performance to remember and treasure. Her expressions, body language and silences create a character with a life of her own, a “real person” we, the audience, feel as if we have known always, intimately.
Lions for Lambs
Starring Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep, Robert Redford, Derek Luke, Michael Peña, Andrew Garfield
Written by Matthew Michael Carnahan
Directed by Robert Redford
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes