Lions for Lambs is a cinematically sparse film, with so little effort toward presenting a polished cinematic package, that the viewer might find it a little jarring. Three parrallel stories occur over a period of one hour.
A journalist (Meryl Streep) conducts a one-on-one interview with Senator Jasper Irving (Tom Cruise) over his new initiative in Iraq. Irving, played with all the cockiness that some of us liken to the Tom Cruise persona (and mistakenly Tom Cruise himself) is forceful in trying to get Streep to see a certain point of view and borderline bullies her into accepting his line of thinking that this new strategy is going to work and is worth the human cost. If you replaced Matt Lauer with Meryl Streep, it would practically be a dramatic reenactment of Cruise's famous tirade on The Today Show arguing against prescription medicine. My point here is Cruise is perfectly cast, and I think Redford was very aware of Cruise's recently damaged likeability rating at this point in time.
The second piece of the puzzle is two bright students who volunteered for the army to prove that they were pro-active citizens, against the urging of their professor. These characters are more likeable in the flashback scenes because in the present day military conflict their foolishness (in the name of chivalry) stretches plot credibility a little thin.
The third story arc and the one which I found most compelling was between a college professor (the same college professor who discouraged his two former students in plotline #2 from enetring the war) and his most promising student during a one-hour advising session. The student (Andrew Garfield) was once a catalyst for some of the class's most most interesting discussions and showed great intelligence, but lately he is becoming more interested in fraternity life and girls and doesn't believe politics are worth it because "they're all crooked." The student is the apothyoses of disengaged undergraduates today and credit goes not just to the actor (it would be easy for a young person to portray a stereotypical member of today's college youth) but to the 40 year old Matthew Carnahan for capturing his language reasonably well. Redford has the most presence on screen out of anyone of the film as the professor.
This is a good and bad thing because I can understand people seeing Redfordt's a blatantly transparent method of getting his political message across that Redford casts himself as the professor and provides the most intelligent source of discourse. This is likely to draw hostility from audiences and be seen as arrogant. I remember they responded that way when M. Night Shamylan cast himself as the writer who would later be the savior to humanity in Lady in the Water. One criticism I might agree with is that rather than making this film, Redford could just as easily go around the country making personal appearances and speaking about these issues (although the answer would be: that would be far more time consuming), but for a filmmaker who has something to say, I can't think of many films (except a Michael Moore documentary) that are so that are so effective at saying it. Redford's film speaks so directly to our generation and the current situation.
Cinematically, Lions for Lambs is not the best film out there. It feels less like a serious and concerted effort on Redford's part to make a good narrative film than it should. But at the same
time, I think it says things that haven't been said before, and whether you agree or disagree with his finer points, it's surely an eye-opening experience. It' the larger theme about how this generation deals with the alienation from pointless wars and crooked politics that resonates.