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“Rome is burning, son!” Robert Redford’s idealistic college professor tells one of his slacker students in the actor-director’s latest. Strange, then, that this curious drama fizzles out so frequently, for all its righteous indignation and star-heavy cast. You can’t fault the veteran leftie’s eagerness to grapple with thorny political realities in this provocative look at a divided America. Those wooed to the cinema by its central triptych, though, will be rather wrong-footed by a loquacious, theatrical affair that, surprisingly, doesn’t really qualify as Oscar bait.

Built around a real-time conceit familiar to everyone who’s seen 24, Lions unfolds more or less simultaneously in three separate locales in three different time zones. In one, presidential hopeful Jasper Irving (Tom Cruise) gives an audience to a sceptical reporter (Meryl Streep) and promptly spills the beans about a daring attempt to swing the war in Afghanistan back in Uncle Sam’s favour. Over in central Asia, two hapless grunts (Michael Pena and Derek Luke) quickly realise the aforementioned strategy is fatally misguided after they become stranded in hostile mountainous territory. While all this is going on, Redford’s world-weary academic gamely attempts to motivate an intelligent underachiever (Andrew Garfield) by revealing what made Pena and Luke, both former charges of his, sign up in the first place.

You’d think the sequences of military ’copters coming under attack and soldiers’ stoic courage under fire would be the main attraction here. Bizarrely, though, they’re not, a combination of dodgy FX and exteriors that were clearly shot in a studio undermining what should be the film’s emotional nexus. Instead, it’s the Cruise-Streep face-off that generates the most heat, with Meryl delivering her character’s cynical put-downs with aplomb and Tom clearly relishing every second of a confrontation heavily reminiscent of his courtroom tussles with Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men. Redford’s scenes resonate less in comparison, mainly because their importance to the plot only rarely seems more than peripheral.

A real mixed bag, then, destined to be remembered more for its indulgent use of three Hollywood heavyweights than its call to action against a war-mongering government, the compliant media in its thrall and a youth too apathetic to care.

The Total Film team are made up of the finest minds in all of film journalism. They are: Editor Jane Crowther, Deputy Editor Matt Maytum, Reviews Ed Matthew Leyland, News Editor Jordan Farley, and Online Editor Emily Murray. Expect exclusive news, reviews, features, and more from the team behind the smarter movie magazine.