Robert Redford's Lions for Lambs may be the gabbiest movie ever made about American foreign policy. It was written by hot young screenwriter Matthew Michael Carnahan, who is fresh off his alpha-male script for another poorly executed war movie, The Kingdom. Perhaps that explains the presence, early in Lions for Lambs, of The Kingdom's director, Peter Berg, striding around Afghanistan in a buzz cut and stiff upper lip, imploring his noticeably minority foot soldiers to show the enemy "the full measure of American mean." Compared to facing the meanie back home in Washington — a Republican hardbody played by Tom Cruise in crisp white shirt, sparkly molars, and oodles of blind ambition — the war zone Over There is peanuts.
We find the senator in his office, hectoring a tough old broad of a journalist (Meryl Streep) about the need for a surge-to-end-all-surges in the Middle East. Dimpling away, she lectures him right back on the folly of United States warmongering. Then we head west, to a California university, where a professor/Vietnam vet (Redford) cuts a deal only a celluloid academic could make without losing his job: He promises straight Bs to a disaffected, failing student (Andrew Garfield) on the condition that he cast aside sloth to become all that he can be against the war.
For a movie relentlessly devoted to realism, Lions for Lambs is riddled with implausibilities. Would a rising, White-House-eyeing Republican choose a liberal reporter to push his latest war on terror? Are today's youth really as politically lethargic as this privileged white boy? Would his star classmates, an African American (Derek Luke) and a Latino (Michael Peña), having bootstrapped themselves out of East L.A., chuck it all away and blithely join the army in order to become the movie's conscience?
Known for making stately, linear films with lovely sunsets and 60 Minutes dialogue, Redford has none of the piss and vinegar, the technical bravura, or the hip irony of younger directors making political films, like Stephen Gaghan (Syriana) or Paul Greengrass (Bourne Ultimatum, United 93). His editing is artless, the action scenes listless and amateurish, the characters almost entirely representational of the political attitudes they strike. Researched, data-crunched, and op-eded to the hilt, Lions for Lambs talks and talks and talks at you until your ears detach themselves in protest and walk out, probably to check out Saw IV. The movie feels twice as long as its trim 88 minutes, as it lumbers toward complete coverage of the state of our nation. You sit there waiting for the 9/11 speech, the unnecessary deaths, the gravely inconclusive ending — and it all comes without fail.
The movie, in other words, is awful — yet also somehow touching, even adorable in its dogged sense of responsibility, its stubborn refusal of style. When you've seen as many postmodern show-off movies as I have that use the war as a convenient peg on which to hang a thriller (including The Kingdom), there's something refreshing about a movie as earnest and well-briefed as this one. Redford is no intellectual, but I found myself unaccountably charmed by his lack of cynicism, his oldfangled desire to plead the case of ordinary people caught up in the reckless aggression of the powerful. Lions for Lambs may not be much of a movie, but in the face of such sweet sincerity, what's a jaded critic to do but roll over and offer her tummy for tickling?