An ideological thriller for our times: Lions for Lambs.

Military action during World War II took less than five years to resolve once the U.S. became involved. So why is it that we're six years into the "war on terror" with no end in sight? And where do we go from here?

Such is the jumping-off point in Lions for Lambs, a philosophical jugular-grabber where questions fly like machine-gun salvos in some Jerry Bruckheimer-produced actioner.

There are three plots occurring simultaneously in Lions for Lambs. The first is a verbal sparring match between Senator Jasper Irving (Tom Cruise) and journalist Janine Roth (Meryl Streep) in Irving's D.C. office; the second is a teacher-student conference between Professor Stephen Malley (Robert Redford, who also directs) and Todd Hayes (Andrew Garfield) in Malley's office at an unnamed California university.

By design, these four protagonists are archetypes of the segments of society they represent. Irving signifies the Republican reselling the war on terror with a positive message and a forward-looking approach. Roth is the liberal journalist who was snookered by the White House in the lead-up to the Iraq war; she says she won't get fooled again. Malley is the Vietnam draftee/war protester who ended up in academia, resolved to change the world by shaping the minds of future generations. Hayes symbolizes the generation of intelligent but politically apathetic non-voters who are jaded by Washington and see politicians as interested only in keeping office, not in governing.

Screenwriter Matthew Michael Carnahan gives each character the floor with the best, most distilled argument each perspective has to offer. Most people watching Lions for Lambs will hear their own opinions, whatever they may be, professed — and well-stated, at that. The film that emerges is a pure ideological thriller, giving each angle equal time and conversely challenging the notions that each of the four corners holds dear. The film thrives on asking tough questions, and its best trick of all: refusing to answer any of them. Lions for Lambs may be the most fair and balanced work of commercial art to come out in a very long time.

The film does brilliant things. One involves the third plotline: a pair of U.S. Army soldiers (Derek Luke and Michael Peña) pinned down by al-Qaeda/Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan. The soldiers, former students of Malley's, are the first wave in a new battle strategy that Senator Irving has initiated to win Afghanistan once and for all.

So it is that, while all the rhetorical jousting is going on in the states, U.S. soldiers are the ones caught in the crossfire — literally. Clever enough plotting, but here's the real upshot: The soldiers are well aware of the nature of their sacrifice and what they're fighting for: the ideological battle back home. Thus, Lions for Lambs sidesteps jingoism, sentimentality, exploitation, and any of another half-dozen soldier-in-peril landmines and reminds us that it is right to ask these questions and others. It's our responsibility to answer them soberly.

Lions for Lambs

Opens Friday, November 9th

Multiple locations


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