Rendition (New Line), directed by Gavin Hood, is the latest in a string of movies that attempt to bring home the issues in the War on Terror by personalizing them: What if [insert horrific abuse of human rights here] were to happen to you? There’s something depressing about the idea that events such as the abduction and murder of an American journalist (A Mighty Heart), the murder of a returning soldier suffering from PTSD (In the Valley of Elah), and now the extraordinary rendition of prisoners to other countries for purposes of torture, need to be “brought home” any closer than they already are. What, exactly, is abstract about the suffering we’re confronted with in the news every day? The trade papers like to puzzle over why Iraq- and 9/11-themed films have so consistently failed to draw large audiences, but maybe staying away from these movies is just the public’s way of saying, “Enough!”
Still, Hollywood—particularly during Oscar season—functions on the assumption that no trauma has entered the national consciousness until it’s been undergone by a flaxen-haired gamine with major box-office draw. Someone like, say, Reese Witherspoon, a gifted performer whose blue saucer eyes, spunky underbite, and general air of lovability threaten to limit her to roles less interesting than those she’s capable of. I love Witherspoon when she’s working the manic edge of that goody-goody persona, like the ruthless teacher’s pet she played in Election. But Rendition gives her little to do besides jut that famous jaw forward in determination as she pats her pregnancy prosthesis on a waiting-room couch.
Witherspoon plays Isabella Fields El-Ibrahimi, the about-to-give-birth wife of an Egyptian-born, Chicago-based chemical engineer named Anwar (Omar Metwally). Because of a mix-up that’s never fully explained, Anwar is detained at the airport on his way back from a professional conference in South Africa. Apparently his cell number has been connected to a recent suicide bombing in North Africa. At the peremptory order of a CIA operative, Corinne Whitman (Meryl Streep), he’s dispatched to an unnamed country where interrogational tactics are, shall we say, more freewheeling.
Isabella, unable to get answers about her missing husband, heads to Washington, D.C., where her old college boyfriend Alan (Peter Sarsgaard) works as the aide to a senator (Alan Arkin) with connections to the CIA counterterrorism unit. There, she plonks herself down on the chocolate-colored waiting-room sofa that should have gotten top billing in the trailer, so endless is its tenure on-screen. Meanwhile, Anwar is being waterboarded, subjected to electric shock, placed naked in an isolation cell, and, when all else fails, punched in the face by a local police chief, Abasi Fawal (Igal Naor). The young CIA analyst assigned to observe the interrogations, Douglas Freeman (Jake Gyllenhaal), stands by, anguished but (for the most part) passive, and drinks himself into a stupor every night.
Gyllenhaal’s Douglas is the only character in Rendition with any moral complexity: Witherspoon’s wide-eyed soccer mom might as well have cartoon butterflies on her shoulders, while Streep’s torture-loving technocrat all but flies to work on a broom. But Gyllenhaal’s character is so immobile for the first two-thirds of the movie that, when his conscience finally does kick in, we hardly know why. Tormented inertia is a hard emotional note to hit, but the role suits Gyllenhaal, an actor who always seems fundamentally likable but only half-awake.
Igal Naor, an Israeli, is sickeningly convincing as the North African cop who treats torture as just another dreary day’s work (Naor will play Saddam Hussein in an upcoming HBO film). But Fawal may have another, personal motive for mistreating Anwar: His daughter Fatima (Zineb Oukach) has run away from home to live with a terrorist-in-training (Moa Khouas), and Fawal suspects a connection between his daughter’s boyfriend and the prisoner.
In a bid at Babel-style layered storytelling, one of these plotlines, and only one, has a strange wraparound chronology, in which the first events we see are eventually revealed to have taken place after, rather than before, the rest of the action. If that sounds confusing on the page, you should see it on-screen.
But forget the thin characters and showoffy temporal structure. Rendition’s worst flaw is its political deck-stacking, with its willingness to win the viewer’s sympathy by showcasing the least defensible instance of extraordinary rendition imaginable. Like Isabella petitioning her well-connected ex, the movie appeals to our classism: Anwar’s rendition must be a scandal because, my lord, he’s an upper-middle-class professional! Who got a Ph.D. at NYU and married Reese Frigging Witherspoon! If I had a family member who had disappeared under similar circumstances, I’d no doubt play the class card (or whatever card I had) just as shamelessly as Isabella does. But if I were a filmmaker taking on the all-too-topical subject of state-condoned torture, I’d take pains to remember that the human rights of a homeless illegal immigrant—even one who might, in fact, be linked to acts of terror—were no less worth defending than those of Mr. Legally Blonde.