Lions for Lambs **

Posted: November 09, 2007

"Rome is burning, son!" barks poli-sci professor Stephen Malley (Robert Redford), trying to shake the smug self-interest out of his bright but blase student (Andrew Garfield), as the world beyond their cloistered California campus goes seriously kablooey.

A passionate plea for public engagement in government and politics, a condemnation of failed U.S. military policies in the Middle East, and a star-studded affair to say the least, Lions for Lambs is also stagy, and worse, dull. Built as three separate story modules - the student-professor conference, a reporter-U.S. senator interview in Washington, and a stealth combat mission in Afghanistan - this talky A-list job slowly connects the dots, serving its message in speeches, not dialogue.

Redford, directing from a screenplay by Matthew Michael Carnahan (of the far livelier, if ludicrous, Middle East adventure The Kingdom), wastes the talents of the great cinematographer Philippe Rousselot. There's not much even a master shooter can do when you've essentially got two actors locked in a room. That's where Redford and Garfield find themselves, ringed by books about Vietnam and other history lessons gone unlearned.

And, three time-zones to the east, Tom Cruise (as Sen. Jasper Irving) and Meryl Streep (as veteran TV journo Janine Roth) are trapped together in an oak-paneled office furnished with an American flag, a fancy rug, and framed photos of big shots. Irving, an ambitious young GOP pol, a Harvard-schooled, West Point-trained conservative, has invited the reporter to his chambers for an "exclusive": He's telling her, and her alone, about a "new strategy" to win the war against evildoers. Apparently, it is 2009, and the U.S. is still bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan. (No mention of who's residing in the White House, alas.)

The third strand of Lions for Lambs' interwoven screenplay: Army Rangers Arian Finch (Derek Luke) and Ernest Rodriguez (Michael Pena), fallen from a helicopter and trapped on the snowbound ridges of a mountain range in northern Afghanistan. They're lying there, broken and bloodied, as the Taliban closes in.

With awkward cutaway shots to ticking clocks, to Streep's pen as she scratches shorthand in her reporter's notebook, and with the connective backstory of soldiers Arian and Ernest coming to light, Lions for Lambs lumbers to its end.

Hobbled by a kerplunky script, the magnificent Streep and the charismatic Cruise are left to offer tics, nods and knowing grins; the discourse is flat and so is their lengthy "real time" tête-à-tête. Redford fares no better, while the young Garfield at least comes off as convincingly arrogant. Luke and Pena, halfway around the world, are believable as good buddies trapped in a bad place.

For the record, and the curious, the title, Lions for Lambs, is explained somewhere in the dull plod of all this: A German general in World War I, remarking on the courage and composure of the British troops being slaughtered by the thousands at the behest of their commanding officers, noted, "Nowhere else have I seen such lions led by such lambs."


Lions for Lambs ** (out of four stars)

Directed by Robert Redford. With Redford, Tom Cruise, Andrew Garfield, Derek Luke, Michael Pena and Meryl Streep. Distributed by MGM Films.

Running time: 1 hour, 28 mins.

Parent's guide: R (violence, profanity, adult themes)

Playing at: Area theaters


Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "On Movies On-line," at http://go.philly.com/onmovies.

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