Many of Robert Redford’s films as a director have soft-focused on lovely American scenery; at first glance, the talky Lions for Lambs would appear to be more in the vein of his Quiz Show: an intense, interior drama about murky American values. Instead, it floats in a netherworld between stage and screen. The war-movie story of two soldiers (Michael Pena and Derek Luke) on a secret mission in Afghanistan is orbited by a pair of stagey ongoing conversations: a journalist (Meryl Streep) talking to a glib, confident Republican senator (Tom Cruise), and idealistic college professor Malley (Robert Redford) attempting to engage his apathetic student (Andrew Garfield).
The characters’ fates intertwine a little, like a less-elliptical version of an Iñárritu movie, and Redford’s interest in making specific points about current American politics, policies and citizenry (rather than vaguely point out worldwide suckiness) is admirable. He’ll be accused of crazy-liberal bias, of course, but it’s not so much propaganda as it is a civics meeting with dramatic readings by some big stars. Those stars, especially Cruise and Streep, keep you engaged but not challenged. Their characters are overwhelmed by familiarity, and when the talk slows down in favor of smaller cinematic moments — Streep gazing at the photos that adorn Cruise’s office wall, flashbacks to the soldiers’ past — the film feels rusty and unsure. Malley’s observations about the ways adulthood sneaks up on you hint at another, more subtle and more emotionally involving movie. While it’s probably unfair to fault Redford for not making another movie entirely, his Malley is awfully convincing: potential is a terrible thing to waste.