November 8, 2007

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Lions for Lambs (R)
Meryl Streep, Tom Cruise and Robert Redford talk and talk and freaking talk some more about The War, Terrorism and The Responsibility of the American Public in Lions for Lambs, a movie that manages to feel absolutely never-ending despite not quite cracking 90 minutes.

You know how sometimes you’ll be at a movie and some blow-hard who clearly thinks he has a blinding insight into the film spends the entire movie explaining his brilliant theory on the movie’s subtext to his companion and, occasionally, if you’re really lucky, to the entire theater? (And, yes, it’s always a “he.”) And, as you listen to him drone on, causing you to miss key points of the plot, you just want to say “shut up, guy”? I felt that way in this movie, but not just about the two guys, on either side of me, explaining to their seemingly non-responsive dates what was going on, in that very moment, on the screen. I felt that way about the movie itself. “Shut up, Robert Redford,” I found myself wanting to say. I’m all for political dissent (though I don’t know if it’s still dissent when it represents the majority opinion in the country) but does it have to get in the way of decent storytelling?

Lions for Lambs presents us with three set pieces. One is the office of a California university professor. The other is the office of a U.S. senator. The third is the dark and snowy battlefield in Afghanistan.

In California, Professor Stephen Malley (Redford) is trying to knock a little academic rigor into Todd (Andrew Garfield), the smug fraternity president who’s been skipping his class.

In Afghanistan, Ernest (Michael Peña) and Arian (Derek Luke), former students of Malley’s, are preparing to set out on a new mission.

In Washington, D.C., Republican Senator Jasper Irving (Cruise) settles into his chair for an hour of bloviating at reporter Janine Roth (Streep).

The stories are interconnected, we realize, not just because Ernest and Arian are former Malley students but because they are also about to set forth on a mission, a new strategy to fight in Afghanistan, that is the baby of Jasper Irving — exactly the kind of all-smiles, no-wits politician who has made Todd so deeply jaded. They’re all just (allow me to present the PG version of Todd’s jeremiad) poopy-heads, those politicians in Washington. They aren’t brave defenders of freedom and justice; they’re in it only for themselves and their own poopy motives.

Nice try, Malley says. The real problem is that you don’t understand how the government counts on your apathy. If only you and your beer-bong-ing frat brothers would take notice of the world, like those well-intentioned minority youngsters Ernest and Arian did. (The movie’s condescending tone toward its Latino and African-American duo would be more annoying and embarrassing if the general sanctimonious nature of the film didn’t completely eclipse this one facet of the story. So, good choice, Lions for Lambs, make the preachiness so insufferable that I don’t really notice the patronizing.)

Meanwhile, Ernest and Arian climb on a helicopter and set out over the mountains of Afghanistan. Apparently, Irving’s new strategy is “put soldiers in smaller groups to make them easier for the enemy to kill or capture.” Irving talks about this new “let’s split up” strategy as a means for surgically precise search-and-destroy missions. Janine points out that this plan — which made me think of the “you check the dark basement while I head to the dilapidated barn” plans in horror movies — made her think of a similar and unsuccessful strategy in Vietnam. And then they go round and round shooting cliched liberal-media platitudes and Fox News sound bites at each other until Irving is called away to take a phone call and Janine is left alone in his office to ponder her responsibility for selling the war to the country and to allow me to ponder the frumpiness of her clothes. (Get the hair out of your face, Liberal Media, and next time go for a more pronounced A-line skirt, which, as the What Not to Wear crowd would say, floats away from your body. Just because she’s supposed to feel the weight of the world doesn’t mean they have to dress her like she’s carrying it all in her hips. It’s annoying to see the great Streep so shabbily attired.)

When the camera leaves Janine and her wardrobe of self-loathing (it’s like her suit jacket is trying to apologize for not questioning early War on Terror policies), we return to Ernest and Adrian, who win my prize for least irritating characters. They soon find themselves smack in the middle of trouble with a capital “T” that stands for “Taliban.” As they try to calculate the difference between the amount of ammunition at their disposal and the number of minutes until their likely rescue, we are treated to flashbacks of their life with Malley, when he tries to talk them out of going to war and they tell him about the benefits of a military career and a paid-for college education (the latter two of which they’ll receive if they survive the former).

In the present tense, Malley is trying to inspire Todd — not to go into the Army, but to wake up and get involved. How exactly? Ah, and now you’ve found the movie’s biggest, loosest thread.

For all the talking (and there is ever so much of it) the movie doesn’t actually say much. The wars have been badly executed, politicians aren’t always the best generals, college students like skipping class — which one of these opinions is earth-shattering?

Lions for Lambs tries to be even handed and approves of all the right things — the bravery of the troops and the need for them to come home and be safe, the importance of a world at peace, the healthiness of a country with an involved and engaged citizenry and a vigilant and skeptical press. OK. So how do you get that stuff? I realize that’s the hard part of this question and not necessarily something a movie can answer. But isn’t that why it’s better to make war movies that show the difficulty of the situation instead of just yammering on about it?

I’d argue that the fast-paced bit of fluff The Kingdom actually has more substance than this movie. Here, we can easily spot the villains (Tom Cruise’s sleek, golden-boy arrogance is at its best). In The Kingdom, despite the high-speed chases and the explosions, the underlining what’s-it-all-mean stuff was murkier, messier, a lot more genuine.

Lions for Lambs is as speechy, reactionary and ultimately unfocused as that post-9/11 episode of West Wing “Isaac and Ishmael,” more about saying “something” than saying something meaningful. The movie’s creators — specifically Redford, perhaps, with his tight close-ups around testifying faces — seemed to have a rush of things they wanted to say but no good story to frame their point. C-

Rated R for some war violence and language. Directed by Robert Redford and written by Matthew Michael Carnahan, Lions for Lambs is an hour and 28 minutes long and is distributed by United Artists. The movie will open on Friday, Nov. 9.