2/5 STARS — STARRING ROBERT REDFORD, MERYL STREEP, TOM CRUISE, MICHAEL PENA AND DEREK LUKE. DIRECTED BY ROBERT REDFORD. RELEASED BY MGM DISTRIBUTION CO. RATED R; 1:32.
The long-winded bluster of Matthew Michael Carnahan’s screenplay for “Lions for Lambs” suffocates Robert Redford’s talent for elegantly communicating characters’ emotions through gestures rather than words. By helming an unapologetically polemic film against the Iraq War, Redford forsakes his chief strength as a director — lyrically dissecting the complex relations between parents and their children in the American nuclear family.
The best moments in Redford’s rely on precise visuals to depict emotions between taciturn fathers and sons. Tom Skerritt’s minister clenches his right fist when he learns his son broke all of the bones in his right hand while trying to fend off his murderers in “A River Runs Through It.” Ralph Fiennes descends from celebrity to shamed son as he confesses to his professor father from the desks of a lecture hall that he cheated on “Quiz Show.”
The subject matter of “Lions for Lambs” leaves little room for such subtle gestures. Still, Redford and his cast manage to locate some nuance when its characters — as verbose on political matters as Quentin Tarantino’s are on pop culture — shut up.
Moviegoers who dig structural gamesmanship will find modest pleasure in the architecture of the movie’s plot: Three stories run parallel paths in the tight confines of an 88-minute running time (which almost seems blasphemous amid the nearly three-hour running times that typically plague Oscar contenders like the overrated “American Gangster”).
Each story is dictated by a deadline, which feels retrofitted to infuse the movie with urgency: Political reporter Meryl Streep has one hour to interview Republican Sen. Jasper Irving (Tom Cruise) about a new strategy for fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan; a military unit has minutes to rescue two stranded soldiers (Derek Luke and Michael Pena) from a circling enemy in a botched execution of Irving’s plan; university professor (Robert Redford) tries to shake a gifted student (Andrew Garfield) out of complacency before, uh, students storm his office to argue about their grades.
Carnahan’s screenplay attempts to stage each scene as a dynamic showdown. Obviously, the soldiers’ story — with guns and explosions — has the upper hand. The other two stories swivel on the friction between the siren call of financial success and Doing the Right Thing. While the ethical conundrums these characters face fall short of the tortuously complex decision that “Gone Baby Gone” places in front of its protagonist, Redford and his cast manage to blend in some sharp character work among the movie’s Liberal 101 arguments against blind patriotism.
Cruise delivers the senator’s suave talking points, peppered with corporate-world lingo (“tipping point”) and the conviction of a man who has taught himself to believe the half-truths and grandiose statements that accompany political stardom.
The most nuanced storyline involves Redford’s professor, whose efforts to motivate a student are as defined by guilt as by idealism. “Rome is burning, son,” Redford says with resignation, a lovely moment of baby-boomer sorrow that briefly finds the quiet amid the clang of this fire alarm masquerading as a movie.