Robert Redford has won a directing Oscar, created the Sundance Film Festival and permanently imprinted himself on the hearts of female baby boomers. But apparently that’s not enough. Redford’s new movie, the first he’s directed since 2000, suggests the star nurses a secret ambition — to be a college professor.
And he can . . . well, pretend to be, thanks to a screenplay by Matthew Michael Carnahan (The Kingdom). Lions for Lambs is billed as an explosively topical drama about America’s role in the world since 9/11. But about a third of it consists of scenes in which Redford, as poli sci professor Stephen Malley, lectures and exhorts and Socratically questions a student he’s summoned to his office to find out why he’s been MIA in class. The prof sees a spark of potential in this cynical frat boy, and practically gives himself a coronary trying to fan it into flame. But Andrew Garfield plays the student so smarmily that audience members may be more inclined to wish this rich kid would find out how a Starbucks counter looks from the other side.
That pretty much sums up Lions for Lambs: wasted potential. The movie jumps back and forth among three story lines, unfolding roughly contemporaneously in different time zones. While Redford does his inspiring-teacher schtick in California, in Washington, D.C., high-powered journalist Meryl Streep is settling down for an exclusive interview with Republican Senator Tom Cruise, who wants to sell her on a new military offensive against Al Qaeda. Meanwhile, over in Afghanistan, soldiers are already enacting that new strategy, which isn’t exactly a triumph of military planning.
Caught in the crossfire are a pair of troops (Derek Luke and Michael Peña) who just happen to be old buddies from Redford’s class. As Redford tearfully explains to the slacker how this pair — both from disadvantaged backgrounds — won his respect and enlisted in the Army over his objections, we watch them battle for their lives. The irony is clear: While the privileged student sits on his ass, the kids from South Central L.A. are putting it all on the line. But Carnahan doesn’t seem to think we’ll grasp the point by ourselves, because he has Redford’s character explain economic inequities to us. Meanwhile, back in D.C., Cruise is practically frothing at the mouth, demanding, “Do you want to win the war on terror? Yes or no?” Luckily for us, Streep is right there to point out his hypocrisy.
The script is rife with debates, each of which might have been the seed of a great political movie. To their credit, Redford and Carnahan make a concerted effort to represent opposing points of view: Even Cruise gets in plenty of zingers, as when he points out that the press didn’t start asking the president hard questions till after the invasion of Iraq. (Surrounded by American flags, he’s like Bush 2.0, the complete-sentences version.)
The characters aren’t straw men — but they aren’t individuals, either. Nothing in the movie feels like real life: Even scenes set on an Afghan mountaintop amid blowing snow are weirdly inert and devoid of suspense. Unlike Ridley Scott with Black Hawk Down or David O. Russell with Three Kings, Redford doesn’t have the action-directing skills to bring wartime chaos alive on the screen. And Carnahan doesn’t have the writing chops — or perhaps the experience — to speak to the young folks whose apathy clearly bothers Redford.
Someday, someone will make a great movie about the mess we’re in. But for now, if you want to see today’s controversies come alive on the screen, you’re better off with a doc. And if you want to take the pulse of America post-9/11, you’ll learn more from genre fare like “24” or “Battlestar Galactica” or the Bourne trilogy than this movie. They may not be “realistic,” but they get the hopes and fears right.