LIONS FOR LAMBS directed by Robert Redford, written by Matthew Michael Carnahan, with Redford, Meryl Streep, Tom Cruise and Andrew Garfield. An MGM/ United Artists release. 89 minutes. Opens Friday (November 9). Rating: NN
Three things happen in Lions For Lambs. A powerful Republican Senator (Tom Cruise) discusses a new military initiative with a TV reporter (Meryl Streep). A dedicated professor (Robert Redford) gives a pep talk to a student (Andrew Garfield) who he thinks is wasting his potential. And two U.S. Special Forces guys (Derek Luke, Michael Peña) lie bleeding atop a mountain in Afghanistan.
The trick in Matthew Michael Carnahan's screenplay is that these things happen in real time - starting at 10 am Eastern - and the two soldiers are not only victims of the new military initiative but also former students of the college professor.
Screenwriter Carnahan, brother of writer-director Joe Carnahan, is reputed to be the talented sibling. Okay, Lions has a better script than Smokin' Aces, but it's not as good as Narc. Matthew Michael Carnahan also wrote The Kingdom, and its director, Peter Berg, turns up here as the colonel running the Afghanistan operation.
In essence, Lions For Lambs is two long dialogue scenes, two short dialogue scenes and the military action plot. The self-bashing liberal irony emerges out of the contrast between all the chin-wag about political philosophy and engagement and the fate of the two characters who are actually engaged in the conflict.
The best thing about Lions is Tom Cruise. No, seriously. Cruise as a slick, ambitious and manipulative politician is a brilliant piece of casting. Like his role in Magnolia, it could earn him an Oscar nomination (his fourth).
The worst thing about the film is that it feels like a 90-minute lecture by a really sincere undergraduate who's really concerned about the war. I can appreciate the passion, but the arguments, while cleverly couched, aren't terribly original or interesting.
Indeed, after listening to Redford's professor hector his student about the need to engage with the world and care about what happens beyond one's personal horizon, I had a horrible/funny thought: Andrew Garfield's Todd went home, thought deeply about what his professor said and wrote this screenplay.