Robert Redford's first overtly political film as a director, Lions for Lambs was made with what I am certain were the very best of intentions. We all know what road you can make out of good intentions.

It's a great muddle from the word go: the script, by Matthew Michael Carnahan (who debuted earlier this year with The Kingdom) is an exceptionally crude example of hyperlink cinema, the narrative genre of multiple interlocking plotlines typified by Syriana and Babel. Clearly, Lions for Lambs aspires to be like those films - I am certain that this is why the writer elected to write using this structure. But there's none of the cleverness of those earlier films on display in this film, which is content to jump between three stories in unvarying order, with the regularity of a metronome.

Those stories: two soldiers in Afghanistan, Ernest Rodriguez (Michael PeΓ±a) and Arian Finch (Derek Luke) fall out of a helicopter during a secret nighttime mission; in Washington, Senator Jasper Irving (Tom Cruise) grants journalist Janine Roth (Meryl Streep) an exclusive interview to lay out his grand scheme to win the War on Terror; in California, political science professor Stephen Malley (Redford) asks uncomfortable questions of a promising young slacker, Todd Hayes (Andrew Garfield). The connections: Ernest and Arian were once Malley's most inspirational students, and their secret nighttime mission is the seriously FUBAR step no. 1 in Irving's bright new plan.

Hyperlinking it is, but it smacks of a first draft attempt. Or, as I mentioned above, crudity. If you want to tell interlinked stories, you can't get much more basic than this "A connects to B and C connects to B also" format, and while simplicity is often to be prized, there's elegant simplicity and then there's a grievous lack of imagination. Unlike in most hyperlink films, the relationship between strands simply isn't exciting or compelling here, it's simply posited and then left to dangle. This is a compound problem for Lions for Lambs, which needs all of the added excitement it can muster, for what happens within each of those narrative strands is best described as "deadly." Irving and Roth sit on opposite sides of a desk and talk. Malley and Todd sit on opposite sides of a desk and talk. Ernest and Arian actually have a vaguely thrilling time, in context: Ernest's leg is broken and Arian is waist-deep in ice, and they are aware that Al Qaeda operatives are drawing near, and they find themselves flashing back to college, when they would sit opposite Malley, and all three would talk.

Thank the director for the small favor that this is a scant 88 minutes long, because the customary "skosh over two hours" would be unendurable. I suppose that there are compelling and exciting movies that consist of virtually nothing other than people sitting and talking, but that sort of deliberate anti-drama is not usually forced to do the heavy lifting for an actual story. Nor is Redford (let's be honest) an especially great director, the kind who could lift his actors to the intensity required to make a talking-heads narrative into something honestly intriguing.

So Lions for Lambs flounders about all talky and undramatic, and it is very similar to having Meryl Streep, Tom Cruise and Robert Redford sitting in your living room, reading op-ed pages to you, although that would actually be a lot more fun than the movie, because dude - you'd have Meryl Streep, Tom Cruise and Robert Redford in your living room. Fair is fair, who doesn't love a good policy paper? But we do not typically expect them to be in movie theaters.

For that matter, what of the politics? Very blandly liberal. There's nothing in the film at all new to anybody paying attention at all (which is to say: most of this will be shockingly new to most viewers). It's arguments the blogosphere was making 30 months ago and the traditional media 18 months ago - in other words, the state of the art for the time the script was being written. But even granting that, it is mostly superficial, all of the observations functioning along the lines of "Republicans have a distinct tendency to obfuscate in the hopes of turning an increasingly unmanageable war into something approximating a political victory" and "the patriotic young men of the lower classes do not perceive that the government sending them off to die makes few efforts to better their lives." I am genuinely not sure if anybody who would actually consider seeing this film would find those to be mind-blowing arguments.

(I also want to mention one thing that really rankled me: Malley is a professor at A California University, which I assume to be dog-whistle politics for UC Berkeley. The very tired canard that "Berkeley is a liberal hippie hotbed" is a right-wing frame that needs to be put down, not co-opted by the left. Shame, Mr. Redford).

(Another rankle: Senator Irving, we are told, is a Republican from Illinois. As fucking if).

The game team of actors is totally undone by the script and the director (though Streep comes up with some diverting and needless bits of business), and in Cruise's particular case, by playing a cartoon robot without recognisable human characteristics. And they deliver policy speeches. And that is all I have to say about the actors.

Swinging back around to that idea of crudeness: I don't just mean the script's gracelessly derivative structure, but the way that it expresses theme in large monologic slabs, as characters orate to each other in completely uninteresting and unbelievable ways. The filmmakers knew what they wanted, and they took to first steps to get there, but this is just embarrassingly strident, and that's coming from someone whose only major gripe with the film's politics is its tendency to validate the Republican frame around the GWOT.

And for all this, one part of the film is absolutely perfect: the command team trying to extract Ernest and Arian from their wintry trap. Trapped inside a bunker with only an increasingly staticky satellite image showing what the hell is going on, and shot with dispassion by the director (I think that was probably an accident of low talent), it's a fly-on-the-wall thriller with the military in crisis that does more to explain what's going wrong in Iraq and Afghanistan, while being infinitely more entertaining, than any other frame of the whole misbegotten film. It is a ten minute slice of the movie that I really wish I could have been watching, instead of the film Redford inexplicably chose to make: a deathly dull MSNBC debate with higher production values and transparent biases. Yippee for a fun night at the pictures.

4/10