Lions for Lambs a sharp look at American politics

Robert Redford's new film, Lions for Lambs, is a civic-minded call to arms for people of any political stripe. A film brimming with debate and little else, Redford, along with writer Matthew Carnahan, have crafted a triptych in the tradition of last year's Babel. It's a much more overtly political film than that one was, though, and concerns itself more with viewpoints and soapbox stances than character development and dramatic arcs.

Robert Redford is a veteran of film and, like Clint Eastwood, is as comfortable in front of the camera as he is behind it. Each shot in Lambs feels spacious and unhurried, and Redford's natural visual pacing matches perfectly with the crisp pacing of Carnahan's script.

Redford plays a liberal college professor in the film, trying to awaken a student to his personal responsibilities, and succeeds in sharply parrying words with the youth, balancing quick-witted mannerisms with avuncular moments.

But if there is a drawback to Lambs, it's probably due to Redford's reticence towards creating anything more than what is in the script. Redford deftly maneuvers his camera and performers through the film, but in the end it resembles more of an essay than a moving piece of drama.

The film as a whole feels as compact and utterly thought-out as something Redford's character might assign in a political science course: "Write a paper on the myriad viewpoints concerning America's struggle in the Middle East and how that ties in without crumbling sense of civic duty." That's not to say that isn't an interesting and well-conceived topic. It's just that directors like Spike Lee (Do The Right Thing) and Steven Gaghan (Syriana) have done the same thing: produced a kaleidoscope of nuanced viewpoints paired with dramatic storytelling. Redford's efforts, however noble and polished, come off as missing a crucial element - a robust and moving story.

Lambs boasts a superlative cast, though. Along with Redford, Lambs also contains the marquee performances of Meryl Streep and Tom Cruise. Streep plays a steely reporter trying to dig into the truth behind a new military offensive. Her icy composure is a common performance method of Streep's, but it's as enjoyable to watch now as before.

Her final scenes, however, show her resolve breaking down into an impassioned plea with her editor not to let past mistakes replay; this well-balanced turn is as good as Streep can pull off in such a confining script.

Cruise plays a hawkish senator who grills, and takes a few hits himself, in a debate with Streep's character. Cruise infuses his role with fire, passion and grit that winds itself masterfully into a character that avoids caricature and instead becomes wholly engrossing.

Derek Luke and Michael Pena also turn in excellent performances as young volunteers in the Afghanistan war who become stranded in a mountainous region surrounded by Taliban fighters. Their performances hold up well against their fellow acting titans, and their characters enjoy the only dramatic arcs of the film.

Lambs is clearly striving to be an important movie, and in some ways it succeeds. It deftly portrays a wide array of viewpoints on today's society, and while it never hides that mission, it also is never shrill or chiding. But without the dramatic form needed to flesh out its three main figures, Lambs characters become mere spigots for well thought-out and nuanced stances.

Lambs is a strong encapsulation of today's political Zeitgeist; it's just a shame that some of its more tantalizing characters had to pay a price to get the points across.