Regardless of what you conclude about Lions for Lambs -- whether you find it to be a thoughtful polemic, or an exegesis of things we already know, or a scolding for not already knowing them -- you'll have to admit that it's certainly the year's bravest Hollywood movie.
After fewer than 90 minutes, it ends -- just like that. It's almost all talk, and the part that isn't won't entertain you. And yet, it does exactly what it sets out to do, and it has no loose ends -- at least, no more than the evening news. Word for word it's articulate and absorbing; scene for scene it's beautifully acted and tightly strung.
The story, written by Matthew Michael Carnahan, unfolds simultaneously in three locations. A California college professor (Robert Redford, who also directed) commands a gifted but truant student to his office to convince the cynical kid of his potential, and to tell him about Ernest and Arian, two earlier students who promised great things. A rising young senator (Tom Cruise) invites a veteran TV news journalist (Meryl Streep) to his Capitol Hill office for an exclusive about a bold new initiative to win in Afghanistan. A soldier (Peter Berg) prepares his men -- Ernest and Arian among them -- to implement the senator's new battle plan.
In California and D.C., each pair talks, while in the icy Afghan mountains, Ernest and Arian end up wounded and pinned down. All we know for sure, as the story unfolds, is who won't die. A lot gets said between the master debaters back home, and nothing gets resolved. The question is whether anything can get resolved with so many people espousing strident ideologies and making safe choices.
All of this of course is highly contrived, as fable and metaphor must be. For a while I bristled at its cowardice: Why did they create fictional characters instead of naming names (although Cruise is Gumped into photos with Bush and Condi)? Why didn't they call people out, rather than creating a roman-à-feet-of-clef? But then it occurred to me: This movie doesn't want to explicate the past. It wants to rewrite the future.
And so, here's what Lions for Lambs teaches us:
If the dentine young senator, with his penetrating stare, is the "future of the G.O.P.," then the G.O.P. is doomed. (Score one point.)
Liberals are ivory-tower intellectuals or well-researched TV journalists with no courage. (Back to zero.)
We're all up Shit Creek without a canoe. (Minus one.)
Plus ça change. (You get the picture.)
Tim Robbins' Dead Man Walking is still the gold standard for social-issue movies that present both sides with compelling clarity and thrilling drama. Lions for Lambs speaks well. But I doubt it will change anything because, as I've said, it's all been out there. At the risk of sounding glib, if we don't know it by now -- and we don't -- then the time has come to kiss our asses good-bye.
Starts Fri., Nov. 9.