There's a scene in "Lions for Lambs," shown in some of the trailers, in which Robert Redford, playing a concerned college professor, tries to shake a cynical student out of his apathy. "Rome is burning!" he declares. The words may have been written by screenwriter Matthew Michael Carnahan, but there's no doubt it's director Redford's heartfelt belief that's being expressed, and we know he's not talking about ancient history.
It's hard to think of a precedent for "Lions for Lambs." When was the last time three stars of the magnitude of Redford, Meryl Streep and Tom Cruise teamed up to make … a Socratic debate on the perilous state of our nation? Never, as far as I know. Intelligent, deadly serious, made in a spirit of patriotism and protest, Redford's movie is more civics lesson than drama and doesn't pretend otherwise. It is what it is: a call to action. Nothing if not topical, "Lions for Lambs" addresses the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, questions the idea that it is America's duty to spread democracy around the world, criticizes journalism's capitulation to political manipulation, debates the proper response to terrorism, asks the audience to ponder its own responsibility to speak truth to power, and reprimands us for allowing Bad Things to happen to a Good Country.
Three threads are intertwined in Carnahan's unashamedly didactic script. In the most compelling third, Cruise and Streep face off in a tense debate. He's a gung-ho, saber-rattling, pro-war Republican senator, and she's a skeptical TV journalist he's handpicked to reveal a bold new offensive in the Afghanistan battle against the Taliban. A second debate, all of which transpires in a college office, pits Redford's professor against that bright but disaffected student (Andrew Garfield), whose conscience he's trying to prick: if Rome's burning, we all have to get off our duffs and quench the fire. The third part (the only one that isn't all talk—but the dullest and most perfunctory) shows us two of the professor's former students (Derek Luke and Michael Peña), who, to their teacher's horror, have taken up his call to activism by enlisting. They are, in fact, carrying out the bold and dangerous mission that Cruise is simultaneously selling to Streep—flying by chopper into the mountains of Afghanistan, where they are shot down and surrounded by enemy guerilla fighters.
A movie designed to raise questions rather than provide answers, it tries to give Cruise's hawkish senator his due, but it's doubtful many will find him the hero of the piece—how many neocons are going to fork over eight bucks for what is clearly a prosecutorial position paper from one of Hollywood's leading liberal voices? It remains to be seen as well how many critics of Bush's regime want to see a movie that just as easily could have been a play—or even a radio drama. Carnahan's script is thoughtful, but its ideal venue may be a college debate class, not your local multiplex. While it's fun watching Streep and Cruise go at each other—he a portrait of slick, cocky aggression, she parrying his assertions with irony and disbelief—they are not playing characters so much as positions. My hat is off to the passion that propels this movie, but I wish more of that urgency were reflected in the filmmaking; Redford's movie, in its attempt to be judicious, gives off the scent of the classroom. Perhaps the most eloquent and telling thing about "Lions for Lambs" is that it exists at all. A movie like this would never have been made unless a whole lot of people—not just a trio of movie stars—felt they were living in a burning Rome.