LIONS FOR LAMBS and the real cost of war

From PATHS OF GLORY to PLATOON, the best war movies bring a global conflict down to a personal level. Director-star Robert Redford takes that approach to the War on Terror — and, more specifically, the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan — with his 2007 drama LIONS FOR LAMBS (airing Thursday at 10P and all month long on Sundance Channel).

With 68,000 U.S. troops still stationed in Afghanistan and the next president facing a December 2014 deadline to decide how many will stay longer, LIONS FOR LAMBS remains more relevant than ever. Clocking in at a lean 92 minutes, most of it unfolding in real time, the action takes place simultaneously on three fronts.

In Washington, D.C., a hotshot Republican Senator (Tom Cruise) grants an exclusive interview to a veteran TV journalist (Meryl Streep) and reveals an aggressive new strategy of deploying small units of troops on the high ground in Afghanistan. Meanwhile in California, a political science professor (Redford) tries to reignite the passions of a jaded undergraduate (Andrew Garfield) by telling him about a pair of his former students (Derek Luke and Michael Peña) who volunteered for Army duty. And in Afghanistan, those two servicemen find themselves stranded behind enemy lines as a result of the Senator’s misguided new policy.

The script, by Matthew Michael Carnahan (THE KINGDOM), cross-cuts between these three story lines, building tension even though two of the scenarios simply involve pairs of people sitting in rooms talking. Redford stages the combat sequences masterfully, and he’s aided throughout by a flawless ensemble.

Echoes of earlier films bring resonance to LIONS FOR LAMBS as well. It’s hard not to flash back to Cruise’s performance as anti-war Vietnam veteran Ron Kovic in BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY when Streep points out to him that a similar strategy was tried — and failed — in Vietnam. Cruise’s Senator might be a direct descendant of the empty suit Redford played so memorably in 1972′s THE CANDIDATE, who asked, after winning the election, “What do we do now?”

While Streep and Redford don’t share any scenes in LIONS FOR LAMBS, their work together in the Oscar-winning OUT OF AFRICA must have informed their close collaboration here. Neither lets the media off the hook, as network-news gatherers are indicted for their role in promoting the war effort in defiance (or at least in absence) of the facts.

The younger members of the ensemble are equally fine. Before he dabbled with different kinds of webs in THE SOCIAL NETWORK and THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN, Garfield held his own impressively opposite Redford. Luke proved his breakout work as a military man in ANTWONE FISHER was no fluke, and Peña displays the same charismatic courage-under-fire he embodies in the current LAPD drama END OF WATCH.

In the end, LIONS FOR LAMBS is a movie about people — some of them unseen, like the Bush administration officials who started wars on two fronts without proper exit strategies. Redford’s character derisively calls them “far from the best and the brightest,” a sly reference to David Halberstam’s 1972 book about the origins of the Vietnam War. The Afghanistan war hasn’t reached its ending, but one thing is certain: LIONS FOR LAMBS will make you realize why it should.

Catch LIONS FOR LAMBS Thursday at 10P and all month long on Sundance Channel!

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LIONS FOR LAMBS is part of Sundance Channel’s THRILLER THURSDAYS. Turn off the lights and lock the front door every Thursday at 10P.