That question resonates in each of three loosely knitted stories. First, veteran Washington reporter Janine Roth (Meryl Streep) has been invited for a one-on-one interview with arch-conservative Senator Jasper Irving (Tom Cruise). The slick, smooth-talking senator wants Roth to write a story about a new plan for Afghanistan that will both win the war and repair the government's image. Obviously liberal, she's skeptical about everything he says, but the senator has the fervor of self-righteousness. He insists he can do something about the war, and Roth believes that she can accomplish something by working with him. (To add intensity, their conversation plays out in real time: Granted a one-hour interview, Roth duly emerges from the senator's office after an elapsed running time of one hour.)
In Afghanistan, the plan has already started, and Lt. Col. Falco (Peter Berg) is busy telling his Army charges that they're doing well in the war. "Don't believe what you read," he says. The mission -- a surge, of sorts -- is on, and goes terribly wrong when two men (Michael Pena, Derek Luke) end up on the ground, gravely injured.
Over at "a California university," Professor Stephen Malley (Robert Redford) is having an early-morning chat with Todd Hayes (Andrew Garfield), a prize student of his who seems to have lost interest in making any difference in the world. As Prof. Malley tries to find out why, the student asks plenty of his own questions.
Directed by Redford, Lions for Lambs tosses around social and political issues, examining them deeply while pointing out that opposites (or at least opposing opinions) really don't attract. There's no doubt which side the filmmakers' sympathies are on: They're 100 percent liberal. The reporter is good; the senator is bad; the war scenes are grim and frightening. With the professor and the student, however, there's more gray area: Their conversations are the most believable, with room for ambiguity and for both Redford and Garfield to turn in the movie's strongest performances.
Lions for Lambs sometimes feels a bit heavy-handed -- especially in the white-knuckle sequences showing the Taliban approaching the two downed men, and in the senator's uninformed grandstanding. But it's certainly a story for and of our times. The question, of course -- what can any one of us do? -- remains unanswered.
LIONS FOR LAMBS
Directed by Robert Redford
Starring Meryl Streep, Tom Cruise, Robert Redford
TALKIN' WITH BOB
Why cast yourself in the film?
One, I'd never played that part before. Two, there was some irony there. I got kicked out of University of Colorado after the first year. I was a bad student. I was always nailed for either drawing in class or looking out the window or not paying attention, or challenging a teacher in a really hard way. I was more interested in what was in the world. I think I just sensed that my education was going to come in venturing in the world, and it did. After I was asked to leave, I worked for six months, then sailed to Europe when I was 18, and I studied art in France and Italy, and went on the bum. And bumming around, living in youth hostels and on the backs of trucks and staying with families was such an education. That's where my mind opened up. And I began to see my country from another point of view -- politically. I had no interest in politics until I got engaged with people who asked me questions that I couldn't answer.
What are your hopes for this film?
That it would remind people about what are the factors that get us into these situations that happened before. It happened during McCarthyism, it happened in Watergate, it happened in Iran-Contra, and it's happening now again. Can you think about getting more active as the meter is ticking and time is running out?
This is the seventh film you've directed. Does it get any easier?
It was never hard. Because it came naturally. I started out as an artist -- a painter -- so I had a visual sense already in place. I became an actor for hire, then I produced my own movies, and then I said it's time to direct. I just gradually moved from one thing to the next, but naturally. When I first directed I had a very clear idea of what I wanted. What I did not have was the vocabulary to talk to the crew about this lens or that lens; what I did not have was the bureaucratic sensibility of managing a crew. But that came in time. So I do enjoy it, but I don't really enjoy directing myself. I like the freedom I can give myself but I don't like having to manage myself or make a judgment on my performance.
-- ED SYMKUS