The other day I noticed a bumper sticker that read, ''If you're not outraged, you're not paying attention.'' Robert Redford might have slapped the same sticker on his trailer while directing Lions for Lambs. To say that his latest film is overtly political is like saying fire is hot or President Bush is making a mess out of the war in Iraq.
Lions for Lambs is essentially a 90-minute dialogue taking place on three fronts. First and foremost is a running interview between Senator Jasper Irving (Tom Cruise) and reporter Janine Roth (Meryl Streep). He's the Republican party's hope for the future, an up-and-comer who concocts a plan to control Afghanistan. She's a reporter once known for insightful political articles which are now gutted by the conglomeration of news organizations into large corporate entities.
Lamb or lioness? Streep
The second conversation is between college professor Stephen Malley (Redford) and a student with great ability and poor performance (Andrew Garfield). Malley spends most of the time drawing parallels to two other students who once showed promise: cut to the final third of the film -- the two students participating in Senator Irving's ill-conceived military action in Afghanistan.
I understand that frustrations in the country are high, but Redford doesn't even try to put a front on the film. He might as well have gone the Gore-route and prepared a PowerPoint slide to make his argument that the country has been hijacked by imbeciles with flawed ''strategery.'' He's doing the cinematic equivalent of grabbing audiences by the shoulders and screaming ''Wake up!'' but he's probably just shaking the choir.
To match the thinly veiled political message, the actors turn in poorly acted performances. To be fair, writer Matthew Michael Carnahan gives them very little to work with -- a huge problem with a dialogue-based film. Carnahan's script can best be described as a world in which everyone asks the perfect question to elicit a political diatribe. These ''perfect questions'' are usually unrelated to the previous course of the conversation and give the whole thing a 10th grade writing-project feel.
Streep walks uncomfortably through her lines, punctuating them with awkward laughs and pauses, hardly the image of a hard-nosed political reporter who's eventually able to counter the Senator with comments lines like ''says the man in the air-conditioned room.'' Perhaps Streep is just countering her last role in Rendition when she played the undeniable evildoer. Unfortunately the nuances she so ably fashioned in The Devil Wears Prada are nowhere to be seen.
Redford seems equally one-dimensional as the benevolent professor; his wisdom comes off as self-aggrandizing and elitist. Garfield is a worthy opponent in their verbal warfare, but his seemingly strong showing has just as much to do with Redford's lackluster performance as his own abilities.
By far, Cruise is the best casting of the movie. Though he occasionally channels Daniel Kaffee from A Few Good Men, I've seldom seen a better smarmy and sleazy politician. He's really able to sell creepy.
The brief action in the film takes place atop an Afghan mountaintop where Professor Malley's two students (Michael Pena and Derek Luke) are stranded. Cutting between the Army base and the two soldiers, this story strand is by far the most visually engaging, if least cerebral. Ultimately, it's the soldiers on the ground who are the real heroes in Redford's film. Support the troops, not the war. Got it.
Even without the Streep connection, the parallels between Lions for Lambs and Rendition are impossible to miss. Like Lions, Rendition examines the consequences of our government's actions in a post-9/11 world. However, where Redford has stripped away any cinematic fluff from his point, Rendition still maintains some level of creative storytelling in its equally one-sided message.
Lions for Lambs is fairly true to real time, a point that Redford repeatedly hits home with shots of clocks ticking ominously. While this saved from me from looking at my watch to see when the film was going to be over, I don't think this was the director's intent. I feel I got the same message from the film as I did from the bumper sticker. And reading the sticker was a lot more enjoyable.