Lions for Lambs

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One of the impressive things about “Lions for Lambs,” a thoughtful, up-to-the-minute drama about U.S. involvement in the Middle East, is that despite being directed by outspoken liberal Robert Redford, it is NOT simply a liberal tirade. In fact, the film makes good points on both sides — so much that I occasionally found myself agreeing with the Republican point of view, a sensation I had not experienced in several years.

Redford may have directed the film, but he didn’t write it. Those honors go to Matthew Michael Carnahan, a relatively new scribe whose September film “The Kingdom” was more in the conservative, America-is-always-right line of thinking than most current-events movies are. Certainly “Lions for Lambs” is more balanced than you’d expect a Robert Redford political film to be, if occasionally a little heavy-handed and moralistic (which maybe isn’t as surprising).

The film has three separate stories, all occurring simultaneously in different parts of the world. In Washington, a TV news reporter named Janine Roth (Meryl Streep) interviews Republican Sen. Jasper Irving (Tom Cruise) about the Army’s new strategy for winning in Afghanistan. In California, a political science professor, Malley (Redford himself), meets with a student, Todd (Andrew Garfield), to discuss the latter’s sudden lack of interest in the course. And in Afghanistan, two soldiers, Arian (Derek Luke) and Ernest (Michael Peña), participate in that new strategy Sen. Irving was talking about, though a mishap has left them wounded and trapped in hostile territory.

Perhaps it goes without saying that the thread with Streep and Cruise is the most compelling, but it’s not just because they’re both excellent actors, Streep with her mastery of high-class intellectual femininity, Cruise with his natural charm and intensity. This story is also where the electricity is, as Ms. Roth and Sen. Irving clash — civilly, of course; they’re professionals — about what’s happened in the war so far and what needs to be done next.

The senator is more blithe about the lessons of history than he should be, yet he makes compelling arguments about the War on Terror and fervently believes what he says. This character could have been an anti-Republican smear campaign, but it’s not. The film even rips the news media for failing to do its job in the run-up to the Iraq war and the early days of it, faithfully repeating everything the White House said instead of investigating it first.

At the California university, the dialogue is about Todd’s growing cynicism toward American politics. Where he was once fascinated by it, the more he learns, the more he’s convinced that all politicians, on all sides, are full of crap. But Prof. Malley sees potential greatness in Todd, and he urges him to become part of the solution rather than standing aside and complaining. He tells him about two former students of his who put their money where their mouths were: They enlisted in the Army and went to Afghanistan.

Arian and Ernest, injured and awaiting rescue in the mountains, give the dialogue-heavy film a small dose of action and a sense of real stakes amid the hypotheticals and abstracts. Janine Roth points out that most of the people directing the American war efforts from the comfort of Washington have never actually been in combat. Arian and Ernest are the faces of the real soldiers.

For a film that’s 95 percent talk, “Lions for Lambs” is admirably fast-paced, energized with something often missing in movies: ideas. For the most part, you don’t get the sense that Redford is preaching what he believes so much as giving several characters a platform to preach what they believe. The result is something often missing in American politics: real dialogue.

B+ (1 hr., 28 min.; R, some harsh profanity, brief war-related violence.)

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