With The Kingdom, screenwriter Matthew Michael Carnahan addressed the war on terror by reducing it to an all-explosions action spectacle. In an apparent attempt to show that he can tackle this hot-button topic from a totally divergent, and yet equally stultifying, direction, the screenwriter’s follow-up, Lions for Lambs, now deals with national security issues via inert, didactic talkativeness. This second tack is the preferable one, given that it at least exhibits a passing interest in intelligent discourse. But that’s not to say that this Robert Redford-helmed film is anything more than a three-pronged lecture that plays like a preachy off-off-off-Broadway production. on-screen text identifies the locations of the three primary settings—a professor’s office, a senator’s private quarters, and a military base in the mountains of Afghanistan—as well as the current time, a device so thoroughly unnecessary (given that both pieces of information are readily apparent from the proceedings at hand) that one half-expects Redford to also provide us with a quick introductory synopsis of each segment’s theme.
In Washington D.C., TV news reporter Janine Roth (Meryl Streep) verbally spars with hotshot Republican senator Jasper Irving (Tom Cruise) during a one-on-one interview, the two batting around Iraq-centric issues of diplomatic and military mistakes, the spread of democracy, and moral responsibility with only slightly more nuance (and far less humor) than a typical New York Post headline. Meanwhile, Irving’s daring new military strategy in Afghanistan goes awry when Special Forces buddies Arian (Derek Luke) and Ernest (Michael Peña) find themselves stranded and injured behind enemy lines, a location covered in so much snow and shot with such tight close-ups that it might as well be the snowy ski trails of the director’s beloved Park City. And in the final, torturously edifying segment, political science professor Malley (Redford) tries to motivate smart but cynical Todd (Andrew Garfield) to remain engaged with politics and the world around him during a teacher-student conference that Redford films with a limited collection of camera setups that are almost as stilted and dull as the transpiring conversation.
Lions for Lambs is, to put it mildly, beyond stagey. And it runs a brisk 88 minutes in large part because it doggedly, frustratingly refuses to truly delve into the issues it brings up, mistaking newspaper headline-based speeches full of tired talking points for thrilling, incisive debate. There’s neither depth nor vigor (spoken or visually) to any of the contentious back-and-forths, and though its trio of stars serviceably embody their various characters (dangerously self-interested young Republican, conflicted and appalled journalist, noble professor), they remain, throughout, mere stereotypes. Moreover, despite Redford and Carnahan taking great pains to avoid outright mockery or condemnation of Cruise’s senator (who likes to use terms like “righteousness” and “evil”), the film’s air of balanced objectivity is shown—by Streep’s climactic, sorrowful glances at D.C. monuments (oh, what has become of our democracy!)—to be a complete sham, a disingenuous token gesture aimed at concealing the fact that the entire affair is, in the end, simply a pedantic, one-sided lecture.