“Secondhand ‘Lions'”
by Scott Mantz

“Lions for Lambs”
Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep,
Robert Redford
Directed by Robert Redford

Spin doctor! Tom Cruise goes to Washington in “Lions for Lambs”

In an era where 24-hour news coverage can burn out even the most politically minded individuals, how do you get those very same people to see a movie about the war in Iraq and the war on terror when both are still raging at full throttle (and with no end in sight)?

That’s the question production executives at the Hollywood studios have been asking themselves for years, and unfortunately (like with the war itself), there are no easy answers.  Thus far, none of the recently released politically charged dramas – like “In the Valley of Elah,” “Rendition” and “The Kingdom” – have made much of an impact at the box office.

That trend will likely continue with “Lions for Lambs,” but in this case, there’s a reason for it – it’s just not a good movie.  And that’s a shame, because despite the best of intentions and an A-list cast that includes Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep and Robert Redford (who also directs), the talky, preachy, lecture-filled drama tops 2005’s “Crash” as the most heavy-handed movie of the decade.

“Lions for Lambs” tells three inter-related stories that unfold in real time.  In Washington D.C., a Republican Senator (Tom Cruise) is about to reveal his bold new war strategy to a skeptical news journalist (Meryl Streep).  On the west coast, an idealistic college professor (Robert Redford) tries to motivate a gifted student (Andrew Garfield) into realizing his full potential.  And in Afghanistan, time is running out for two wounded U.S. soldiers (Derek Luke and Michael Pena) caught behind enemy lines.  Though they take place in different corners of the world, they are about to collide with devastating consequences.

Truth be told, reviewing the movie and not the message made “Lions for Lambs” a tricky film to write about.  Because while I fully appreciate what it had to say, I did not care for how it was said (the same reaction I had with “Crash,” which went on to win the Oscar for Best Picture).  There’s no question that screenwriter Matthew Michael Carnahan (who, ironically, also wrote “The Kingdom”) makes his points, but since I was already in his corner from the beginning, the resulting film felt more like a lecture that got increasingly redundant as it went along.

But despite its heavy-handed approach, the film does feature terrific performances from all involved, including Tom Cruise, who’s at something of a turning point in his career.  Not only is the 92-minute “Lions for Lambs” his first role since the termination of his production deal at Paramount, but it’s also the inaugural release from the newly-revamped United Artists, which Cruise runs with his longtime business partner, Paula Wagner.  And he’s certainly well cast as the Congressman who tries to put a positive spin on the war to Meryl Streep, who is equally effective as the news reporter facing a moral dilemma.

But the ensemble also includes Derek Luke and Michael Pena, the latter of whom has been making quite a name for himself with noteworthy performances in topical dramas like “Crash” and “World Trade Center.”  Redford seems to be playing an extended version of himself as the impassioned university professor, but Andrew Garfield is the real standout here as the student he tries to influence.

It’s too bad this is not an election year, because “Lions for Lambs” would have been a great public service announcement for the Democratic Party (not to mention radical filmmaker Michael Moore).  And it does ask very important questions, like “What have we been doing for the past 6 years [since 9/11]?” and “Do you want to win the war on terror?”  But when it also asks “How many times are you going to ask the same questions,” that pretty much sums up the problems with the film.

Because it asks those questions repeatedly until it leads to a numbing effect, much like the 24-hour news coverage that could be keeping people from seeing movies like this in the first place.