[Screen It]

(2007) (Robert Redford, Meryl Streep) (R)

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Drama: As a TV reporter interviews a rising U.S. Senator, his latest military plan has already been implemented, leaving two U.S. soldiers stranded in Afghanistan and their former college professor concerned about their well-being, all as he tries to steer a promising student in what he thinks is the right direction.
Janine Roth (MERYL STREEP) is a veteran TV reporter who's arrived in the Washington, DC office of U.S. Senator Jasper Irving (TOM CRUISE) to do a detailed timeline story of the war on terrorism. She's an unabashed liberal and his views are decidedly conservative, especially when it comes to foreign policy. While he admits there have been mistakes and failures, he believes the latest military strategy will be far more successful, while Janine has her doubts, drawing comparisons to the same promises occurring back in Vietnam.

As their heated but polite interview continues, the military maneuvers have already been set in place. Yet, when a U.S. chopper takes enemy fire in Afghanistan, two soldiers and longtime friends -- Ernest Rodriguez (MICHAEL PEŅA) and Arian Finch (DEREK LUKE) -- end up stranded in the snowy mountains. With their commander, Lt. Col. Falco (PETER BERG), doing what he can to get them out of there, the two young men must contend with being injured and surrounded by approaching enemy forces.

Although he doesn't know about their immediate predicament, Professor Stephen Malley (ROBERT REDFORD) is concerned about their well-being, as they're former students of his that showed great promise, but shocked everyone by unexpectedly enlisting in the military. A Vietnam vet, Stephen knows all too well about what it's like, a point among many he tries to drive into current student Todd Hayes (ANDREW GARFIELD). He's a smart kid apathetic regarding class attendance, and bitter about political science, and much of the rest of the world.

As Stephen tries to point Todd in what he thinks is the right direction, the two soldiers do what they can to survive, all as Jasper assures Janine that his latest plan is going to work, with his only need being for her to drum up public support for it.

OUR TAKE: 4 out of 10
While most elementary and secondary instructors teach by stating the facts, far more college professors -- at least the good ones -- encourage their students to think about, analyze and question what's taught. That way, they grow up into adults who can make their way through the world with a grain or two of salt at their disposal.

The same somewhat holds true for films. Sure, we all like ones that don't tax us mentally and instead rely on pushing our various emotional and instinctual buttons, be that eliciting laughs, tugging on the ol' heartstrings, or making us cringe in terror. Yet, some of the better ones actually make us think about ourselves, others, and/or the world in which we live.

Of course, most of those usually arrive in the form of documentaries, but occasionally a piece of cinematic fiction will come along that manages to do that trick. "Lions for Lambs" is the latest such offering that hopes to be one of those films, and it certainly has potential.

After all, it revolves around current and past U.S. political and foreign policy, comes from an Oscar winning director, and has a high pedigree cast. And it clearly raises a number of thought-provoking questions about the military, the media, and more, although like the better college instructors, it leaves the answers up to the viewers. Accordingly, it will likely elicit some discussion about the matters it broaches, and thus it succeeds on that level.

Unfortunately, where it fails is in making those introspective lessons entertaining or, for that matter, engaging, compelling or even interesting. Feeling about twice as long as its surprisingly short 90-some minute runtime, the film never gets off the ground when it should be soaring. Thus, it comes off as a rather bland and less than involving experience that's all the more disappointing due to the wasted potential.

Working from Matthew Michael Carnahan's screenplay, director Robert Redford divides the film into three set pieces, with one containing a subset of several flashbacks that tie two of the stories together in more than just a passing fashion. The least satisfying of the three features Redford playing a college professor at an unnamed California university who challenges a smart but lazy student (Andrew Garfield) to think about his future, not only in his class, but also the world in general.

The prof's viewpoint -- natch -- has been influenced not only by his own time back in 'Nam, but also by having two of his most promising students (Derek Luke and Michael Peņa) shocking everyone in the past by enlisting in the military despite having seemingly pulled themselves out of bad living environments toward a promising future.

That leads to the second story, of those two soldiers who end up plummeting out of a military chopper into the snowy mountains of remote Afghanistan. Injured and stuck, they must contend with approaching enemy forces. Since there's only so much that can be done with that story once it's been established, the filmmakers take us back via various flashbacks as those students debate more well-to-do ones in Redford's class, thus showing the genesis of why they enlisted in the first place.

All of which connects to the third story and the one with the greatest potential for dramatic fireworks. It involves Tom Cruise playing an up and coming U.S. Senator and political hawk whose latest military strategy has resulted in the two soldiers' current predicament. His immediate nemesis, however, is a liberal TV reporter (Meryl Streep) who initially wants to do a detailed timeline story on the current war on terrorism, but ends up questioning the senator, his mindset, and his kind's foreign policy.

While the competitors on both sides of all three stories are fairly balanced in number, there's never any doubt where Redford the storyteller stands on the issue (despite the film not offering any overt answers). There's obviously nothing wrong with him saying whatever he wants, but the fact that little of the material jumps off the screen ultimately undermines the message and, more importantly, the film's entertainment value.

Some of that stems from the three stories each only getting their allocated chunk of the brief running time. Most of it is due, however, to a lackluster screenplay that does a lot of posturing, but lacks the spark to ignite one's passions, be that in angry disagreement or vehement support.

That's particularly true in the story featuring Cruise and Streep that has the greatest degree of dramatic possibilities. Considering their characters' opposing viewpoints and their need to play civilized toward each other while obviously hiding their disdain for where the other stands, one would expect their interaction to build to an inevitable and explosive head.

Yet, that never happens and thus is a disappointment, especially when Cruise's presence might remind some viewers when he was on the other side of the debate in "A Few Good Men." Considering Streep's character progressively showing where she stands, you half expect the senator eventually to have had enough and go all Jack "You Can't Handle The Truth" Nicholson on her, but that never occurs.

In fact, it's that lack of passion that ultimately keeps the overall film and its individual parts from ever catching fire, taking off, or your metaphor of choice for jumping off the screen and grabbing the viewer. While the involved star power might give it some box office and later rental legs, the fact that contemporary audiences have pretty much avoided these sorts of political commentary films of recent doesn't bode well for its success.

Too much sheep and clearly not enough king of the jungle, "Lions For Lambs" isn't awful, but its bland mediocrity, despite its posturing and good cast, means it's a boring sit. The film rates as a 4 out of 10.

Reviewed October 25, 2007 / Posted November 9, 2007

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