The presence of righteous indignation is often just as insufferable as its conspicuous, unjustified absence.

In 2003, politicians and pundits alike marched in lockstep toward the war in Iraq, flogged mainly by a fear of sagging poll numbers and Nielsen ratings, respectively, that might emanate from even questioning the reasons or motives behind any Middle Eastern crusade flying the Sept. 11 standard. Nearly five years later, these same enablers now graze around the tath left by the Iraq debacle.

In fairness, Robert Redford and others responsible for making Lions for Lambs likely opposed any military incursion led by the Bush administration from the jump. Still, the film, the first produced by Tom Cruise and Paula Wagner since they purchased a stake in United Artists last year, was only released after a seismic shift in public opinion manifested by the 2006 congressional elections. Still, amid the torrent of similarly opportunistic fare coming out of Hollywood this fall, Lions for Lambs is the singularly sanctimonious, heavy-handed and counterproductive of the lot.

Structured as a revolving three-act screenplay, the film begins in the congressional office of U.S. Sen. Jasper Irving (Cruise), once proclaimed the “new face of the Republican party” by veteran TV journalist Janine Roth (Meryl Streep), who Irving has now summoned for an exclusive interview about the military’s “new direction” in Afghanistan. His policy includes small, strategic strikes executed by bands of Army Rangers, among them Ernest (Michael Peña) and Arian (Derek Luke), two former college students who dropped out of school to join the military in an effort to make a difference by contributing to the preeminent event of our times.

Their decision came much to the dismay of their professor, Stephen Malley (Redford), a Vietnam vet who has now set his tutorial sights on Todd (Andrew Garfield), a clever but disgruntled pupil to whom Malley issues a tweed-cloaked call to action. And so the round-robin milieu goes, shifting constantly and without transition from Irving’s office to Malley’s to an Afghan mountaintop where Ernest and Arian fall from a poorly rendered CGI helicopter and get pinned down by approaching Taliban rebels.

Few are spared in this remarkably short (88 minutes) gasbagpoliticians, military commanders, educators and, particularly, the media. I rather enjoyed the message behind a scene where the launch of Irving’s new military campaign is revealed in a television news crawl running below a story about some random pop tart breaking up with her rap-star boyfriend. But, for every moment like that there are a dozen cloying ones, such as Roth taking a cab ride by D.C. landmarks and weeping at the sight of the White House and Arlington Cemetery.

The sad irony of an “I-told-you-so” talkathon like Lions for Lambs is that it unintentionally confirms and recollects the reasons why the Democratic Party will have occupied the Oval Office for a scant 12 of the last 40 years by the time the 2008 elections roll around (and with 8 of those years compliments of Bill Clinton, arguably the most adroit politician in modern American history). Those same reasons are also why the Hollywood Left currently preoccupies itself with heaping cinematic hosannas onto Al Gore and Jimmy Carter while one of this year’s early frontrunners for a best documentary Oscar, No End in Sight, entices viewers with its supposed anti-war stance when, in actuality, the position of the film and its millionaire, right-wing policy wonk director is that the Iraq War was not wrong, just the way we went about it.

Even in a controlled environment like Lions for Lambs, where lefties penned every word of dialogue, virtually all liberal characters spend the bulk of the film clucking their tongues and wringing their hands in pious disapproval without the slightest forward-looking directive other than Malley’s vague repackaging of “Turn on, Tune in, Drop out.” It is not even clear whether they believe there are too many or too few soldiers in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, only Irving, the movie’s resident conservative bogeyman, offers any clear vision or plan for the future, however misguided or duplicitous it might be. As Irving speaks passionately about his desire to protect America, Redford ham-fistedly counters the senator’s diatribes not with intelligent discourse from the sputtering Roth but with Irving’s photo-ops with Dick Cheney, Condi Rice and Dubya.

To Redford’s credit, he does not conveniently cast Irving as some Cheney-esque ogre but rather a blow-dried, backlit pretty boy armed with a flashy smile, Harvard diploma and West Point imprimatur. Still, as Irving sloganeers with “learning from our mistakes,” “a war of ideologies” and “a fresh approach,” it seems as if Redford and screenwriter Matthew Michael Carnahan (The Kingdom) presume the audience will detect the transparency of the Irving’s message and recognize him as a smiling cobra in a three-piece suit, a snake oil salesman peddling warmed-over neocon drivel. Guess what? The guy would get elected president tomorrow in a landslide. Neil Morris

Lions for Lambs opens Friday throughout the Triangle.

Ang Lee wants Lust, Caution to be his version of such murderous romances as Hitchcock’s Notorious and Suspicion, a point he underlines repeatedly with shots of his heroine going to the movies. While there’s a long, venerable tradition of filmmakers announcing their influences in this fashion, it really doesn’t help Lust, Caution to remind us of a much better movie we could be watching.

The Taiwanese-born film director has always been an odd, uneasy fit with the demands of mainstream Hollywood filmmaking. After securing his reputation with several intimately scaled domestic dramas, he came to Hollywood and began making tasteful literary adaptations aimed at the art house market. His subsequent steady ascent included Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and culminated in Brokeback Mountain, a film that successfully married Annie Proulx’s literary pedigree with a potent social issue and the wide Western out-of-doors for a runaway winter hit that, because of its humorless self-importance, became a ripe target for satire.

Now, for better ormostlyfor worse, Lee, with his seriousness intact, has made a return to his art house roots with Lust, Caution, a political and erotic thriller set in the Japanese-occupied China of the early 1940s. This film concerns a group of callow theater students in Shanghai who decide to form a resistance cell, move to Hong Kong and become political assassins. Their target is Mr. Yee (the inevitable, but brilliant, Tony Leung), a ruthless police investigator who has turned against his countrymen and is now part of the Japanese-imposed security apparatus. In the first of this film’s handful of worthwhile ideas, it is the shyest, meekest, most innocent member of this clique, the slight but pretty Wong Chia Chi (newcomer Tang Wei), who turns out to possess the improvisational skills and sangfroid necessary to become an effective mole.

To his credit, Lee does an effective job of underlining the ludicrousness of the entire clandestine enterprisewhat the students don’t understand is that playing spy in real life is different from playing spy in their dreams, or in the movies. When, after Wong sets her hooks into Yee, it becomes apparent that this virginal Mata Hari, who thus far has succeeded in her worldly self-presentation, is going to have to sleep with her target, she’s left with no choice but to practice with the only member of the cell with sexual experience (which he’d acquired with prostitutes). There’s an appealing bleak humor to this sequence: Initially, the power belongs to the nominally experienced man, but as Wong becomes comfortable with the sex act, and sex becomes another tool in her arsenal, her partner is reduced to the cipher he was before.

But, in addition to what has thus far been a fairly steady foray into the sort of political thriller Graham Greene might writethat of under-equipped, morally compromised characters grappling with intrigue beyond their kenLee’s film makes a grievous error in trying to sell us a story of erotic obsession. So the deadly affair between the good spy and the evil cop begins, with slaps, beatings and bondage, and explicitly photographed scenes of the pair assuming positions far more imaginative and pleasure-seeking than their characters actually are. Their joylessly strenuous exertions are barely passable as soft core erotica (unless one has been dying for a close-up of Tony Leung’s scrotum), and the sex does little to improve our understanding of the characters.

There is only one really memorable scene in Lust, Caution, a singularly horrific act of violence that underlines just how difficult it is to kill someone. It’s a pity the film doesn’t end here, approximately two hours into this 157-minute movie, because a narrative closure could have been achieved, with the film’s themes largely established: In committing a pointless murder, the young students have lost their innocence.

Instead, the story lurches into a third act back in Shanghai, in which the now-destitute and demoralized students rally themselves for another go at Mr. Yee, who has also returned to the city and is breaking up resistance cells left and right. It’s here that the film finally fails, for our continued interest depends on us believing that there’s genuine affection between the two. But Yee is a collaborationist, bureaucratic thug (and, given the sums of money he’s revealed to possess, probably a corrupt one, too), and if Wong is going to fall in love with himas she evidently doesthen she becomes diminished in the process. The deadly ending is meant to be tragic, but it’s only the demise of a sordid sexual liaison whose participants surely would prefer that its existence not be revealed. The affair is the shameful secret of tinier-than-life characters. David Fellerath

Lust, Caution opens Friday in select theaters.