Liberal message movies tend to follow the Mary Poppins principle: Just a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down. The sugar is suspense, mystery, romance the sweeteners Hollywood sprinkles over Important Issues like corporate duplicity or blood diamonds to render them palatable. Lions for Lambs is different. It's all medicine, and doesn't try to hide the fact. It doesn't pretend to be a thriller or a love story or a vehicle for George Clooney's five-o'clock-shadow heroism. Directed by Robert Redford and written by the gifted topical button pusher Matthew Michael Carnahan (The Kingdom), the movie consists mostly of people sitting around rooms, usually two at a time, debating the conflict in Afghanistan, the quagmire of Iraq, the arrogance (or is it stay-the-course courage?) of war-on-terror politicians, the superficiality (or is it muzzling?) of the press, and the complacency of everyone else.
Are we having fun yet? Lions for Lambs may be the first movie that feels as if it should have a credit that reads, ''Based on an episode of The Charlie Rose Show.'' The tiny scale and armchair talkiness mark the movie as a bit of a folly, an act of idealistic hubris in today's commercial marketplace, yet that's its (minor) fascination too.
It hops among three segments. In Washington, D.C., Jasper Irving (Tom Cruise), a smooth young right-wing senator, is being interviewed by Janine Roth (Meryl Streep), a TV reporter. Irving has summoned the journalist, who once wrote a TIME cover story heralding his rise to power, to announce a U.S. military surge in the war in Afghanistan. But the interview turns into a debate, as the reporter picks apart the administration's euphemisms and the senator parrots the Bush-Cheney line with more eloquence, it must be said, than Bush musters. Cruise, in his cocksure-logician mode, doesn't condescend; he gives the neocon rhetoric its due. But it's Streep, braiding hesitancy and aggression, who wins the acting contest, and the reporter who trumps the senator's arguments even if he then trumps her back, nailing the press' hypocrisy, its urge to duck any blame for first supporting the Iraq invasion.
Meanwhile, in California, Todd Hayes (Andrew Garfield), a cynical college student, conferences with his poli-sci professor (Redford), who wants to know why the once-avid scholar has been skipping his class. Redford plays it like a master shrink, coaxing the kid's vulnerabilities out from behind a wised-up veneer. Their debate might be called ''Why Try to Change a World That's Too Corrupt to Change?'' All of which leads to the third segment, in which two soldiers (Michael Peña and Derek Luke) both former students of Redford's prof board a chopper in Afghanistan, as part of the surge Cruise's senator was selling.
Lions for Lambs is so square it's like something out of the gray twilight glow of the golden age of television. Even the military plot, which clunks, seems to be taking place on stage. Yet Carnahan's writing ignites familiar issues with vigor and snap; there's audacity in its attempt to seize us with nothing but a war of rhetoric. Maybe Lions for Lambs wouldn't seem like such a folly in a movie culture that risked making more follies like it. B