The first release from the new, Tom Cruise-run United Artists is a rumination on war, education, and politics from one of our most socially minded actor-filmmakers: Robert Redford, whose liberal college-professor character provides the film's title. ''In trying to dissuade two students from going into the military, I quote a German general in the First World War who said, 'Never have I seen such lions led by such lambs,''' the Oscar-winning director (Ordinary People) explains. ''That's a direct reference to the current situation, where we have soldiers put at risk by people who've never bled in a fight.''
The drama ricochets between three separate plotlines: Redford's ex-pupils (Derek Luke and Michael Peña) ignore his advice and embark on their first tour of duty in Afghanistan; the professor mentors a disaffected student (newcomer Andrew Garfield); and a Republican senator (Cruise) summons a journalist (Meryl Streep) to his Capitol Hill office for an in-depth conversation about the war.
It should come as little surprise that those three stories eventually collide, providing a tidy framework in which Matthew Michael Carnahan (brother of Narc director Joe Carnahan) can explore his deeply held political ideas. ''I don't want to sound like the standard Hollywood Democrat bashing the United States, but I'm so frustrated with our lack of memory,'' says the writer. ''All of these enemies that we have now, they were our allies not long ago. Osama was our guy when he was aiming his rockets at the Soviets.'' Redford also admits that Lions isn't exactly a balanced examination of the issues at hand. ''It's hard to be impartial today if you want to make a statement about where our political system has taken us,'' he says.
The film's multiple story lines meant that many cast members never actually worked together. ''I said, 'Just give me a couple scenes with Meryl,''' says Peña (World Trade Center), whose pleas went unheard. ''But I did the next best thing: On my days off, I watched them shoot. I mean, why not, dude?''