“Lions for Lambs”: A bummer for Meryl?

I saw Lions for Lambs this week, and I was pretty disappointed. My immediate reaction was, “They should have called it Lecture for Sheep. Or Iraq War Issues for Dummies.” I like the overall message of the movie, which is that we should try to have the courage of our convictions. But the delivery leaves something to be desired.

[Warning: Mild spoilers.]

The film comprises three pieces, two of which are best termed conversation pieces — because they consist of little more than talking heads. (Admittedly, they’re the heads of Meryl Streep, Tom Cruise and Robert Redford, but all they do is speechify.) The third piece, a tale of two soliders, demonstrates that war is hell.

I’m not generally a fan of war movies, but the soldiers’ tale was my favorite part of Lions for Lambs. I almost felt relieved each time I was transported back to Afghanistan to get an update on their plight — because I was finally being shown something rather than told it. Unfortunately, even that part of the film is oversimplified, so the three story lines add up to a bloated public service announcement.

Some critics say it’s worse than that: They insist that Lions for Lambs is anti-American, liberal propaganda. But the film is not one-sided; in fact, the usually two-dimensional, twerpy Cruise manages to make certain bits of Republican rehash seem almost reasonable. And if director Redford is promoting a cause, it’s that of action for action’s sake, of any stripe or party — he just wants us to do something, anything, instead of letting others act for us.

So the preachiness isn’t the worst part of the oversimplification. No, there’s a much more egregious problem: Lions for Lambs is a waste of Meryl Streep’s talents. Much like Evening, the film is too thin to support the heft of her brilliance. As Janine Roth, a journalist who opposes the war and refuses to the bidding of neocons and capitalists, Streep tries to make the most of her underwritten part. And she sports glasses, which almost made it all worthwhile for me.

But instead of a grand reckoning — a glorious, cinematic “Hell no, I won’t go” — Meryl’s moment in the sun is a hot flash. That’s not a metaphor: In a squabble with her boss, Janine complains about the temperature and flits about like a silly old biddy. Whatever you think of Meryl Streep, I think you’ll agree that she should never be a silly old biddy. (Except maybe in Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, but even in that she was more of an eccentric than a fool).

But I realize Meryl may have felt that the message was more important than the movie. And some reviewers (Entertainment Weekly‘s Owen Gleiberman in particular) think the problem is not that Lions for Lambs is a lecture, but that we don’t get more filmic lectures these days. That’s a fair point. During times of national crisis, maybe artists should occasionally let creativity take a backseat to commentary.

So what’s wrong with sacrificing style for substance? Nothing, but I think Redford ended up doing the reverse by trying to put the patina of high art on a movie with low aims. Why not just say your piece on a soapbox, Bob, rather than pretend you’re bringing commandments down from the Mount? Why go to the effort of hiring our greatest living actress if you’re not going to do something, anything, with her gifts?

Or better yet, why not make a movie first and a speech second? Next time I see something like Lions for Lambs, I’ll try to lower my expectations. Or, at the very least, I’ll try to focus on things like foxy glasses.

(For more deliciousness, check out the EW gallery of Meryl’s career thus far.)