How do you take one of the most pressing issues of the day — the American government flying terror suspects off to foreign countries where they can be tortured and held indefinitely without benefit of trial — and turn it into a turgid, obvious melodrama? See “Rendition” if you really want to know. Director Gavin Hood (“Tsotsi”) and writer Kelley Sane have made such a mess of what could have been an urgently topical film that you wonder if they got paid off by Dick Cheney and Ann Coulter to muck things up.
Reese Witherspoon stars as Isabella, the very pregnant wife of Egyptian-American engineer Anwar (Omar Metwally). On his way back from an electronics conference in South Africa, Anwar is detained at the airport in Washington, D.C. and questioned about a car bombing that has recently taken place in North Africa. He claims to know nothing, so the CIA whisks him off to Africa for questioning.
Officials at immigration try to tell Isabella that Anwar was never on the plane, but his credit card records indicate otherwise. She seeks help from old college pal Alan (Peter Sarsgaard), who works for Senator Hawkins (Alan Arkin) and clearly still has issues about losing Isabella’s heart to Anwar. Alan’s search for Anwar runs up against a stone wall erected by CIA chief Corrine Whitman (Meryl Streep, doing that Southern accent that’s movie shorthand for “evil politico”). Their pas de deux at a Washington reception — courteous on the surface, gut-punching between the lines — is the movie’s one highlight.
Meanwhile, over in Africa, diplomatic desk jockey Douglas (Jake Gyllenhaal) gets stuck supervising Anwar’s torture/questioning after the official normally in charge of such things gets killed in a car-bombing at Douglas’ side. And yes, that’s the car-bombing that Anwar is suspected of enabling; the intended target just happened to be Abasi (Yigal Naor), Anwar’s chief interrogator.
There’s lots of playing with narrative — a big twist involves events not happening in the order we expected — and a subplot about Abasi’s daughter and her love affair with an Islamic radical. But “Rendition,” in the end, is a Lifetime movie with pretensions toward being a political thriller. (They could even call it “YOU HAVE MY HUSBAND!” since Witherspoon shrieks that at Streep in a ludicrous scene.)
It’s hard to explain what’s so very wrong about “Rendition” without spoiling too much, but let’s just say that if you were expecting a nuanced discussion of the war on terror, or had even a fleeting thought that everything wouldn’t be put to right by one courageous white American, then forget it.
Besides the wasted opportunity to spotlight the craven policies of the current administration, “Rendition” also squanders some of the screen’s finest actors. Apart from their aforementioned dueling-withering-stares scene, Sarsgaard and Streep mainly just try not to look embarrassed. Arkin barks lines like, “They’re gonna shout ‘national security’ at the top of their lungs and call us bin Laden lovers!” While Gyllenhaal gets just one juicy moment, drily telling Naor, “This is my first torture.” Poor Reese Witherspoon is given shockingly little to do; “pouty victim” is about the very last thing on Earth this dynamo should be given to play.