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Who can you trust? Redford, Streep and Cruise take aim at the politicians driving the war on terror and the way it's covered by the media

"Go Meryl!" yelled a woman in the back of the theater during the screening of "Lions for Lambs."

At that point in the story, Meryl Streep -- playing a TV reporter and former Time magazine star -- is raving to her TV boss about press responsibility to the truth and why she's not, therefore, going to let a Republican senator use her to announce a new military initiative in Afghanistan.

The senator -- who is macho wonkery incarnate -- is played with verbal swagger by Tom Cruise. You can bet the farm he had more than a thing or two to do with the film being made in the first place. He is, in general, the "open sesame" to any filmmaker who wants to make a movie, even one who needs a nine-figure budget.

His director here -- and co-star (though they have no scenes together) -- is Robert Redford, who hereby sets himself up as the No. 1 wonk in Hollywood movies.

You have, believe me, never seen a movie like Redford's "Lions for Lambs."

It's pure propaganda disguised as Washington allegory -- a broadside at posturing Republican chicken hawks and a hopelessly trivialized American press who'd rather follow starlet underpants than young Americans sent into battles to die by a bunch of "lambs" demanding they be "lions."

When Al Gore spouts positions and sounds alarms in "An Inconvenient Truth" -- or when Michael Moore does in "Sicko" -- they are making documentaries. "Lions for Lambs" is a raw blast at prevailing American mendacities in fictional form by three unquestioned members of movie royalty.

Are you ready for the most blatant classicist among American filmmakers making the year's most radical film? What's radical here for a big-budget Hollywood movie is not the matter of it but the manner.

There are no actual people in "Lions for Lambs," just hastily sketched characters who embody positions. In the script by Matthew Michael Carnahan, they spout their positions at length.

Frankly, that shout of "Go Meryl!" from the back of the theater shocked the bejabbers out of me. Until that moment, I honestly had no idea anyone could possibly be that engaged by "Lions for Lambs." It's like taking a rooting interest in an 8 a.m. poli-sci class.

But "Lions for Lambs" is, clearly, a cannier film than many will give it credit for. These film titans, in their political impotence and disgust with the Bush II years, are connecting to so many comparable feelings among those of us who don't have Oscars, many millions, or our faces plastered on magazine covers and Web sites that the godawful ungainliness of their megaplex lecture actually "plays" a little -- in a way.

There are three parallel stories being told in "Lions for Lambs."

One is about Sen. Macho, a young, virile Republican Party star who calls in an early journalistic admirer (she wrote a favorable Time magazine cover story about him when he was a tyro) for a long exclusive morning briefing on a new initiative in Afghanistan to crush al-Qaida. That former Time writer is now a TV news producer -- one of those key behind-the-scenes people who do the actual journalistic work while the Mike Wallaces, Scott Pelleys and Lesley Stahls appear on camera asking questions. This being Medieval Allegory for the 21st century, call her Disillusioned Reporter.

They're played by Cruise and Streep.

Redford plays Professor Wisdom, a craggy college professor in a blue work shirt who is trying his best to save the mind and soul of a promising student who is well on his way to being a bitter, cynical frathouse washout.

The third story -- the tragic one -- is about what happens to two American soldiers in Afghanistan, politically engaged men who were once students of that professor.

That is where this movie becomes moving almost against its remorselessly expository will. In a wilderness of palaver -- manipulation, wonkery, jousting and Socratic instruction -- our noses are rubbed into the dire consequences of all the chin music.

A special disgust for the press is held in this movie by the man who, as star and producer, once gave us "All the President's Men," thereby engineering a good deal of the myth of the Press as Saviors of American Democracy that we now know.

How sad it is for Redford -- and the rest of us, too -- that the guy who made "All the President's Men" now, in sorrow, ineffectuality and world-weariness, gives us "Lions for Lambs."

There's nothing wrong with the performances. Given the unidimensional pedagogy of the film, they're pretty good. Sen. Macho, Disillusioned Reporter and Professor Wisdom are all as cleverly engaging as they can be under the circumstances.

This is one of the strangest films I've seen in years. The last thing I ever expected Redford would do out of sorrow and disgust and political engagement is make a film of barely digestible wonkery and moralizing.

But then there is so much disgust afloat in our time that some of it comes right back at the screen from the back row in the form of "Go Meryl!"



>Movie Review

Lions for Lambs
Review: 2 1/2 stars (out of four)
Robert Redford, Tom Cruise and Meryl Streep in Redford's film about the media, the government and American soldiers in Afghanistan. Rated R and opening tomorrow in area theaters.

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