Given a rare interview slot to chat up new Iraq strategies, seasoned journalist Janine Roth (Meryl Streep) is asked to sit down with Senator Jasper Irving (Tom Cruise), bantering back and forth about Washington's mistakes and plans for the future. Stephen Malley (Robert Redford), a college professor, has asked one of his students, Todd (Andrew Garfield), to spend an hour discussing his academic plans. Frustrated with his apathy, Malley begins to describe a world where the youth take no interest in the future of their country. Across the world, two of Malley's former students (Derek Luke and Michael Pena) who have enlisted are put to the ultimate test when their helicopter is shot down in Afghanistan, leaving them alone, wounded, and running out of ammo as enemy forces gather.
Written by Matthew Michael Carnahan, "Lions for Lambs" holds the same unsophisticated ambitions as his last script, the autumn stinker, "The Kingdom." Both films yearn to push across their Middle East fears, only "Lambs" isn't beholden to Van Damme theatrics and procedural humdrum. It's a more modestly constructed piece, leading with long, curled ribbons of dialogue, preferring verbal gunfire to the real thing.
That very straightforwardness is what cripples "Lambs" the most. Redford isn't fooling around here; the man wants to prompt some serious consideration from the viewer, perhaps even an uprising. It's an exhilarating piece of direction that begs the question, Robert Redford? This is the same man who's been content making the cinematic equivalent of reading the L.L. Bean catalog for his entire career, and now he's ready for a bare-knuckle brawl? Well, hot damn.
"Lambs" is stagy, typically focusing on two characters trying to outwit each other over extended takes, yet it's captured with a reasonable helping of political fury. Redford is swinging for the fences with this one, sharpening the film to a razor point, hoping to hurl it into the heart of the Bush administration or, at the very least, instill the audience with a sense of courage to question their place in the world. It's messy and obvious, but "Lambs" is blessed with a short running time to sprint through (90 minutes) and is cast with just about the finest quality of talent that can be.
As the Republican senator trying to manipulate the media to keep his political star polished, Cruise is careful not to turn Irving into a total baboon. The actor plays the role with slyness and unraveling patience, hitting emotional beats those in the back row could perceive while also preserving a sense of subtle irritation to the character as he tries to keep Roth on a short leash. Streep and Redford have the less dynamic roles, but they bear hug the thematic bigness of the picture with the same enthusiasm, hitting the ideal notes of despair that they might be engaged in a losing battle to change the world.
Providing answers to the world's woes is not what "Lambs" is about. Redford is taking the all-guns-blazing route, pushing the viewer to navigate politics, even media as a whole, for themselves. Perhaps this leads "Lions for Lambs" into areas of pure cartoon, but I was enchanted with the film's gung-ho sensibility and craving for change.