*Lions for Lambs (R)
Carmike 10, Cinemark 16, Tinseltown
Let's be frank about this: Lions for Lambs is one hell of a preachy movie. From start to finish interrupted occasionally by bursts of military gunfire the movie lectures you, in the form of characters lecturing each other.
There is nothing remotely subtle about its didactic activism. When studio mogul Louis B. Mayer famously observed, "If you want to send a message, use Western Union," this was exactly the kind of movie he did not want to see. It's a 90-minute, political-consciousness telegram.
It's hard to explain, then, why I found myself so unexpectedly moved by Lions for Lambs. This is the kind of movie I generally despise. But something here just clicked. The urge to analyze drained away as I found myself really thinking about what it had to say.
And there's plenty of "saying" going on in two of its three primary sub-plots. In the first, journalist Janine Roth (Meryl Streep) spends an hour with Republican Sen. Jasper Irving (Tom Cruise) as he attempts to sell her an "exclusive" on a new strategy in the Afghanistan war.
Meanwhile, in Afghanistan, Army Rangers Finch (Derek Luke) and Rodriguez (Michael Pea) get a taste of what that new strategy looks like in action. And at an unnamed "California university," political science professor Stephen Malley (Robert Redford) meets with a talented but unmotivated student Todd (Andrew Garfield), and attempts to ignite his passion.
Redford (who also directed) and screenwriter Matthew Michael Carnahan (The Kingdom) flip back and forth between these settings, eventually employing flashbacks that show Finch and Rodriguez when they, too, were students in Malley's class. The Afghanistan sequences are the only ones that provide any physical action, yet they're actually the least intense moments in the film.
While they're undoubtedly meant to demonstrate the real-world consequences of the issues raised elsewhere in the film and, at the same time, give the audiences a jolt between dialogue exchanges the bullets firing back and forth ultimately prove less potent than the ideas firing back and forth.
These ideas aren't exactly new or nonpartisan. But even as the narrative revisits familiar ideas, it explores something that should be just as obvious: A whole lot of Americans share culpability for this colossal screw-up. Lions for Lambs points its finger at American citizens who have abandoned their own civic responsibilities out of ignorance, apathy or cynicism.
Maybe this doesn't seem like breaking news; the film certainly doesn't dress up its theses in visual flourishes, favoring a style that just as easily could have worked on a theater stage. Streep and Cruise both shine during their left-vs.-right battle of wits Cruise is never better than when he combines that megawatt smile with a dash of self-loathing but otherwise, it's easy to imagine the story having roughly the same impact if you were reading the script.
Plenty of people will be put off by Lions for Lambs perhaps by its Blue State sensibility, or by its nakedly emotional call to action. And I can nod in agreement, even as I find it impossible to deny that this earnest, awkward little movie did something special: It made me want to be a better American.