You can expect jagged results whenever Hollywood attempts a movie that's "ripped from the headlines." If we're lucky, the film will have some genuinely incisive political points to make. At the same time, the Hollywood maw has to be fed, and that means gross thrills and star turns.
"Rendition," starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Reese Witherspoon, is a good example of this syndrome. Scenes of powerful realism alternate with melodrama. This is not altogether a bad thing: Melodrama can be enlivening; it can even heighten the political content. But more often, and this is usually the case in "Rendition," the clash of trenchant political drama and thriller histrionics produces a jarringly bifurcated experience.
The headlines being ripped here concern the US policy of "extraordinary rendition," where suspected terrorists are whisked without legal recourse to other countries where people are tortured. The film's director, Gavin Hood (who made the overrated "Tsotsi"), and his screenwriter Kelley Sane are careful to point out that this practice originated in the Clinton administration, and they also spotlight an imperious Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) boss, Corinne Whitman (Meryl Streep), who denies the torture charge. But they also depict in graphic detail a harrowing example of extraordinary rendition against an innocent man. The film is undeniably an indictment of current US policy and in form, if not in achievement, compares to such films as State of Siege" and Costa-Gavras's "Missing."
Anwar El-Ibrahimi (Omar Metwally) is an Egyptian-American chemical engineer returning home to Chicago from a business trip in Cape Town when, on frail evidence, he is linked to a terrorist bombing in an unnamed North African country that killed 19 people including a top CIA case officer. Whitman authorizes Anwar's secret abduction to North Africa and subsequent torture.
Taking over for the slain case officer, Douglas Freeman (Gyllenhaal) starts out stoic and grows incrementally more disgusted with the waterboarding and electrodes administered by the cop in charge (Igal Naor), whose daughter's boyfriend, unbeknownst to him or her, is a local radical Islamist (Moa Khouas).
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Anwar's highly distraught and very pregnant wife, Isabella (Witherspoon), heads to Washington, D.C., to track her missing husband's whereabouts. An old college friend (Peter Saarsgard) who works for a liberal senator (Alan Arkin) does his best to root out the situation in the shadowy corridors of power – actually, they are brightly lit, which is scarier – but is stonewalled at every turn. It finally falls to Freeman to do the right thing.
Given how little emotional range is written into his role, Gyllenhaal does a convincing job of rendering the arc of Freeman's disillusion. Chastised by Whitman for having his doubts about Anwar's guilt, he responds flatly and devastatingly, "It's my first torture."
To the filmmakers' credit, the motivations of the key players are not all black and white. Freeman is not a saint and Whitman, for all her imperiousness, is not a cartoon meanie. Everyone involved in Anwar's rendition has a strong justification for what they do, which makes for a more believably terrifying scenario.
But about two-thirds of the way through, "Rendition" takes a bad turn and sells out most of what made it worth watching in the first place. Witherspoon is given little to do except look weepy, Freeman's change of heart is Q.E.D., and the radical Islamist subplot overwhelms the action, which becomes so confusingly structured that I thought the projectionist had misplaced a reel. Complex issues are magically resolved with a single call to The Washington Post.
And so it is that a hard-nosed political thriller devolves into a wish-fulfilment fantasy. Grade: B