Writer Matthew Michael Carnahan has no clue about subtlety, continuity or world politics, as evidenced by his simplistic, uninformed stance that Americans are afraid to take action.

Film Review: "Lions for Lambs" (C )

Recent films about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been almost as unpopular as the wars themselves. Hollywood chooses to blame this consumer indifference on a public not ready to confront the grim realities of two long, drawn-out conflicts. I choose to believe it’s because the films just aren’t very good.

The exception has been Paul Haggis’ wrenching “In the Valley of Elah.” The others, though, like “Rendition,” “Redacted” and “The Kingdom,” have shocked and awed with a level of ineptitude that’s matched only by the Bush administration’s war strategy. A similar lack of thought and foresight dooms the latest of these left-slanting anti-war rants, “Lions for Lambs,” an overlapping triptych that not-so-boldly takes apathetic Americans to task for not speaking out against a presidency run amok.

 A finger-wagging Robert Redford directs his first movie in seven years, and writer Matthew Michael Carnahan, who in addition to authoring the aforementioned “The Kingdom,” is the brother of Joe Carnahan, the writer-director responsible for the box-office flops “Narc” and “Smoking Aces.”

Both Carnahans, by the way, are good buds with the main attraction of “Lions for Lambs,” Tom Cruise, once again proving that you don’t have to be talented so long as you have friends in high places.

I don’t mean to infer that Carnahan can’t write. I’m just saying he has no clue about subtlety, continuity or world politics, as evidenced by his simplistic, uninformed stance that Americans are afraid to take action.

Excuse me, Mr. Carnahan, but did not those Americans you so eagerly chastise go to the polls last year and make their displeasure over the war clear? It’s not our fault that the people we elected are too chicken to take a stand. Perhaps it’s the layabouts on Capitol Hill you should be attempting to stir to action.

Better that than lulling people to sleep with a blunder like “Lions for Lambs,” a discombobulated mess that woefully attempts to wed a day in the life of six people in three time zones.

We begin in Afghanistan, where U.S. troops are about to embark on a secret mission to fend off a reported alliance between Shite and Sunni militia. Among the elite fighters are two former college students, one black (Derek Luke) and the other Chicano (Michael Pena), who joined the Army after being inspired to take a stand by one of their ex-professors (Redford).

Teach, meanwhile is safely back home in L.A., where it’s time for his 8 a.m. appointment with a snotty rich kid (annoying newcomer Andrew Garfield) whose ambivalence he’s about to call to task. He’s convinced if the lad applies himself, he could one day be a major political figure.

Someone like Jasper Irving, the Senate’s white Republican version of Barack Obama and a surefire front-runner if he opts to toss his hat into the presidential ring. He’s played by Cruise, who for some odd reason always seems to excel when cast as a charming snake, a la his Oscar-nominated turn in “Magnolia.”

At the same time the kid and the professor are about to have their sit-down, the good senator is ushering a top TV journalist (Meryl Streep doing her best Diane Sawyer) into his Washington office to provide a scoop on the major operation about to begin in Afghanistan. Little does he know, the initiative as already resulted in two MIAs. Guess who they are?

Amazingly, both fell from a plane onto a snow-covered mountainside in enemy territory with nonlife-threatening injuries. But will their comrades rescue them before either the cold or the Taliban get to them first?

If only we cared. Carnahan does everything in his power to assure that we don’t by piling on implausible situations, browbeating speeches and granola-bar philosophying that would be laughable if it weren’t so condescending.

Redford doesn’t help things, proving equally lethargic in front of and behind the camera. His worst offense is the clunky manner in which he tries to weave the three stories — all taking place at the same moment in real time — into a meaningful whole.

On the rare moments when the film captures your attention it’s largely due to a pair of terrific performances by Cruise and Streep as they partake in a cat-and-mouse game of rhetoric and dogma that’s almost sexual in its intensity. But they’re onscreen for only a third of the film’s surprisingly brief 88 minutes.

The rest is the sort of drivel that inspires one to take action not against our involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan but on preachy Hollywood anti-war rants poorly disguised as entertainment.

       Rated R. “Lions for Lambs” contains some war violence and language.