Although there's nothing easier than casting Tom Cruise in shiny dragon-toothed Magnolia mode as a Republican senator or Redford himself as a rumpled, washed-up college professor with an eye for young talent, Redford uses Matthew Michael Carnahan's script as excuses for actors to create the performative equivalent of Executive Wing "backchannelling": saying one thing to each other and the audience while telegraphing something else entirely. It's all there in the quiet semaphores exchanged between Streep's reporter and Cruise; she's Helen Thomas at the point of becoming Judith Miller, experienced like all Beltway insiders in how the game is played but beholden to familial and corporate attachments. Lions for Lambs doesn't Streep off the hook, but, as her last scene makes clear, the knowledge that actions have consequences -- a cliche which even Cruise's senator understands and has molded to fit his perverse sense of geopolitical entitlement -- dawns on her with a silent chilling urgency shared by the two soldiers in a remote Afghan peak(Derek Luke and Michael Pena) seconds before they meet their fate.
As for the Pena-Luke subplot, it's handled with grace: Redford suggests their bond with nary a moment of Saving Private Ryan-style "humanizing." A Washington Post column by a young ex-soldier published a couple of days ago came to mind; it might have been written by the Luke character:
Nonetheless, the Army's values are important to soldiers. They may not always live up to them, but they do when it matters most. Soldiers are selfless; they are courageous; they are loyal. The most interesting intellectual conversations I've had have been with others in the military. They discuss things not to impress you but because they're trying to figure them out.Look into their eyes: as the snow descends on their trapped bodies, Pena and Luke are still trying to figure out why they're on this remote mountain, yet they still perform their duties. I think a poet who understood the depth of the chasm between the generals in offices and the soldiers on the field:
What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of good-byes.