In the spate of hot-button war movies arriving in theaters this fall, it was inevitable that we'd hear a lecture or two. In the new Robert Redford film, we get six. Lions for Lambs is all lecture: Not the fascinating kind you get at certain speaking events or in great documentaries, but the kind you get in a remedial poli-sci class the morning after a rough night of bar-hopping, from an addled community college professor wearing one of those elbow-patch tweed jackets. At this point in the Iraq debate, it's the last thing you want to hear — that is, what you already know — over and over again, for 90 straight minutes. Whether you lean left or right, you'll feel as if someone decided you needed a flash-card primer on the Big Issues of the last five years, and damn it if they aren't going to make you sit there until you can recite them all by heart.
This is by design, and in case it isn't transparent enough, one of the three main storylines in Lions for Lambs focuses on earnest professor Malley (played by Redford, who also happens to be the movie's director) lecturing a cocky, apathetic student (Andrew Garfield) on Why Politics Matters. In another parallel conversation, the slick Senator Irving (Tom Cruise) harangues conflicted veteran reporter Janine Roth (Meryl Streep) on his bold new ground strategy in Afghanistan; she in turn chews his ear off about the real meaning of a "just war." In the few moments when his actors aren't barking at each other, Redford has the camera lecture the audience: On her cab ride back to the office — where her editor improbably tells her to run Irving's spiel verbatim — Janine mournfully glances at a row of headstones at Arlington National Cemetery. And so Lions for Lambs goes, fueled by the best possible intentions and the worst possible artistry. As political commentary, it's merely thudding and obvious; as entertainment, it's downright narcotizing.
Redford even botches the one plot thread with the potential to draw anyone in, the live-for-the-moment tale of two altruistic grunts (Derek Luke and Michael Peña) attempting to carry out Senator Couch Jumper's untested scheme. The boys are — wouldn't ya know it — former students of Malley's; in flashbacks we see them attempt to sell their ruddy, blue-eyed, John Kerry-like mentor on enlisting. (Spoiler alert: He shakes his feathered salt-and-blond hair disapprovingly.) Even with the decks stacked against his character, it's the underrated Luke who commands real attention, just by being genuine: In a movie where everyone else represents a baldly partisan ideal, he's the only one who seems to be living and breathing on his own. Meanwhile, Cruise flails around in an unsuccessful attempt to be commanding. Streep, in a valiant attempt to give her co-star some added stature, recedes into a leather armchair, as if she's actually intimidated by him. And Redford speaks his lines in the drowsy, chocolaty voice of a newscaster — right before closing the film with an embarrassingly out-of-touch indictment of our pop-culture-obsessed media. It's clear that this old man really wants to tell us something. But he forgot that when fighting a battle of ideas, you have to actually engage people first.
Michael Hastings writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.