It may seem like damning with faint praise to say that actor/director Robert Redford’s new film is, in the end, a “nice try,” but there it is. I would even go so far as to call it a profoundly nice try, and certainly one of the most well-meaning Hollywood films of the year. Although too talky and contrived for its own good, Redford’s project dares to address our current, vulnerable historical moment with a refreshingly even-handed, relatively nonpartisan spin.
Elsewhere in Hollywood, escapism and slanted ideology are having their way. In Lions for Lambs, we’re asked to consider the pressing issues of the Iraq-Afghanistan quagmire, modern media foibles, apathy in the younger generation, and talk versus action, all covered from various angles. Entertaining multiple angles, in fact, is the film’s central narrative structure.
Structured like a stage play with three separate-yet-interactive settings, Matthew Michael Carnahan’s script is a crafty juggling act. In a wintry outpost in the Afghan mountains, two injured GIs await a grim fate, while at an unnamed West Coast university, a professor engages in a debate with his slacker student. And in Washington, D.C., a senator with an agenda and a veteran reporter engage in a cat-and-mouse interview and spin pitch. Lines and interests cross between these geographically remote staging areas, but not as seamlessly as the filmmakers would like. We feel as if we’re being sold something, despite the diverse points of view.
From an acting standpoint, Meryl Streep blows away her peers onscreen, giving her conflicted, aging TV journalist character a depth beyond what the pages of the script call for. Tom Cruise, as a senator pushing a new military agenda, is better than we’d expect, and bears an eerie resemblance to John “every hair in place” Edwards. Redford, as the professor trying to instill conscience and purpose in a promising but indolent student (Andrew Garfield), has a rumpled charm and common sense initiative about him.
As the film is insistent on pointing out, while debates and policy banter take place in air-conditioned rooms in America, Rome is burning and soldiers are dying unpleasant deaths in far-flung locales. We read the headlines, grimace, and maybe weep, then get lost in another day in America, where talk is cheap and mostly harmless.