No one will ever look back decades from now and say "Lions for Lambs" was even remotely a definitive film about the war on terror. Yet there's a certain nobility in the willingness of stars such as Cruise, Robert Redford and Meryl Streep to throw themselves on a grenade for what critics might characterize as prattling pedantry or even political egoism.
The movie works here and there and is quite moving in a few places. At other times, it's a dry discourse on who, why and how we're fighting, and what good, if any, may come of it.
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Oh "Fred Claus," You Lovable Lug!At its worst, "Lions for Lambs" is a cheerleading session, not necessarily to take up the fight, but to take up a fight. Much of the movie plays like a civics lesson, the characters and situations manipulatively constructed to demand of viewers, "Do your duty."
The structure -- three interlocked stories taking place simultaneously in Washington, California and Afghanistan - screams convolution, even contortion, given how relatively short the movie is.
Yet director Redford and screenwriter Matthew Michael Carnahan, who also penned the more conventional terrorism tale "The Kingdom," keep everything so simple and on the surface that "Lions for Lambs" flows easily, if not all that artfully.
In the Capitol, conservative Sen. Jasper Irving (Cruise), a potential presidential aspirant, has summoned fatigued and cynical TV reporter Janine Roth (Streep) to his office to leak news of a bold new strategy in the war in Afghanistan.
At an anonymous California university, history professor Malley (Redford) has summoned a whip-smart but apathetic student (Andrew Garfield) to his office to bully the youth into using his talents for the greater good.
In Afghanistan, two of Malley's favorite former students - Arian (Derek Luke) and Ernest (Michael Pena), who deeply disappointed their mentor by enlisting - find themselves in enemy crossfire resulting from the battle plan concocted by Irving.
The movie flits, at times clunkily, among the three settings, which could be said to loosely correspond to the heart (Arian and Ernest's story), the head (Malley's tale) and the guts (Irving and Roth's scenario) of the terrorism debate.
Some will find the stagy, talky premise excruciating and pretentious, and the movie shoves an obvious and heavy-handed metaphor -- troops seizing the high ground in Afghanistan's mountains -- down viewer's throats.
Still, sporadically crisp and clever dialogue, along with the earnestness of the performances, particularly Streep's, Luke's and Pena's, make "Lions for Lambs" infectiously involving at times, like overhearing a smart and impassioned debate at the next table.
(Wounded on a mountaintop for most of "Lions for Lambs," Pena finds himself in the odd position of playing one-half of a mostly immobile duo for the second time in a terrorism tale, following last year's "World Trade Center").
More lamb than lion, the movie's a lightweight in the pantheon of United Artists films, which include studio co-founder Charles Chaplin's "City Lights" and "Modern Times," Cruise's "Rain Man," and such classics as "12 Angry Men," "Fiddler on the Roof," "Annie Hall" and "Rocky."
But as ideological dramas go, it's a huge step up from, say, Sylvester Stallone draped in an American flag for "Rocky IV."
"Lions for Lambs," released by MGM's United Artists banner, is
rated R for some war violence and language. Running time: 90
minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.
By David Germain