"Lions for Lambs," Robert Redford's first directorial feature in seven years, is a polemic in search of inspiration. Matthew Michael Carnahan's screenplay resembles a middling off-Broadway play. Without the participation of Redford, who also acts in the film, as well as Tom Cruise and Meryl Streep, this talkfest almost certainly would not have seen the light of day.
The film's structure, which is meant to be ambitious, comes across instead as schematic. Three separate situations are played out concurrently, in something like real time, and each is meant to work synergistically with the others.
Streep plays Janine Roth, a veteran TV journalist in Washington who is summoned to the inner sanctum of Republican Senatorial top gun Jasper Irving, played by Cruise in full kilowatt smile mode.
Because of her previous favorable coverage of him, Irving presents Roth with an exclusive – a "new plan" to fight the Taliban in Afghanistan involving an elite cadre of American soldiers. Roth asks when the secret strategy is to go into effect. His reply: "10 minutes ago."
In the second situation, we follow two of the soldiers on that mission, Ernest Rodriguez (Michael Pena) and Arian Finch (Derek Luke), as things get progressively deadlier. The third story, set in "a California university," concerns a dressing down in his office between Dr. Stephen Malley (Redford), a political science professor, and Todd Hayes (Andrew Garfield) a gifted student who is slacking off. Ernesto and Arian were working-class students of Malley's who decided to enlist in the military because they wanted to do more than just talk about solutions.
Redford and Carnahan – Carnahan wrote the gung-ho action picture "The Kingdom" – are careful to present all points of view in the political spectrum even though it's obvious their sympathies do not lie with the Jasper Irvings of this world. But nothing that erupts from these stories is remotely fresh or revelatory. The two soldiers are generic good guys on a fateful mission, the student-teacher session is awash in platitudes, and the Streep-Cruise sparring session – she resents being used but can't turn down a scoop – is like a David Mamet playlet that's missed its mark.
Like many a Hollywood political drama, "Lions for Lambs" carries a full head of steam that is indistinguishable from a lot of hot air. Grade: C-