Director-producer-star Robert Redford continues his slow descent into irrelevance with Lions For Lambs, a hopelessly stilted political drama that plays like U.S. News & World Report: The Movie. Redford's latest middlebrow muddle is so hopelessly talky, mannered, stagy, overwritten, and didactic that it's hard to believe Aaron Sorkin isn't somehow involved. Michael Peña and Derek Luke play noble working-class soldiers pinned down in Afghanistan, but otherwise, Lambs is devoted almost entirely to interminable, flatly filmed conversations about Important Issues. Not since My Dinner With Andre has a film wandered so far from the old cinematic dictum "show, don't tell."
Borrowing the overlapping structure and zeitgeist-happy tone of "hyperlink" movies like Babel with none of their energy or momentum, Lambs surveys the war on terror through three interlocking stories. Avuncular professor Redford tries to instill a sense of idealism and civic responsibility in a cynical student (Andrew Garfield) while former students Luke and Pena battle for their lives in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, veteran lefty reporter Meryl Streep engages in an extended battle of wits with Senator Tom Cruise—there's a frightening thought, eh?—a slick-talking conservative intent on putting a happy face and positive spin on the Bush administration's foreign-policy misadventures.
Lambs' central chatterboxes function as bloodless abstractions—empty, unconvincing conduits for clashing ideologies. These aren't human beings; they're sentient position papers. With his blinding smile and Mitt Romney-style creepy wholesomeness, Cruise represents the viewpoints of the current administration. Redford's passionate professor holds the torch for '60s idealism, opposite Garfield's appropriately facile embodiment of smart but apathetic contemporary youth. Streep, meanwhile, stands in for the liberal press and its complicity in the buildup to war. They're collectively nothing more than the sum of their empty sound bites. At one point, Streep even quotes The Who's "meet the new boss, same as the old boss" line from "Won't Get Fooled Again" as if it were revelatory political wisdom, not a groaning cliché that should be retired due to overuse. Lambs is half radio play, half public-affairs program, with big movie stars standing in for pundits. All talk and zero characterization, it doesn't even feel like a real movie. Just because a film's premise is ripped from the headlines doesn't mean it needs to feel like an op-ed piece.