Director of the Oscar winning Best Foreign Film Tsotsi, former lawyer Gavin Hood calls on both his legal expertise and interest in the moral issues of politics for his follow-up film Rendition. The film, one of the first to crash and burn at the box office in America where audiences decided to vote against the war in Iraq and instead go for alternative entertainment, gets a second life on DVD where it should fare much better given that films of bleak subject matter tend to overwhelm on the big screen and also due to the jaw-droppingly talented cast of Oscar winners and nominees.
Reese Witherspoon plays Isabella, a devoted wife roughly eight months pregnant living in Chicago with her husband, son and mother-in-law. When her brainy chemical engineer husband Anwar El-Ibrahimi (Omar Metwally), an Egyptian who holds a green card but not U.S. citizenship fails to return from his conference in Capetown, South Africa, Isabella fears the worst as it’s revealed that Anwar has been taken into CIA custody and rerouted shortly after his D.C. arrival to another country where he can be tortured and interrogated ceaselessly for information related to American national security. After it’s learned that his cell phone received several incoming calls from a known global terrorist Anwar is apprehended and his rights are stripped under the rendition policy which, born under the Clinton administration has become increasingly utilized after Bush’s war on terror began to transfer prisoners to other facilities in countries where the laws on how to acquire intelligence are far more dangerous and employ both electricity and later the infamous topic of waterboarding in a number of brutally intense scenes. Metwally’s Anwar manages to hold his own, insisting that he is innocent and that there has been some type of mistake which eventually finds an advocate in young CIA desk worker Douglas Freeman (Jake Gyllenhaal) who was grudgingly promoted to attending the interrogation after a colleague was killed in a terror attack.
Back in the states, worried and frightened Isabella tries to piece together the puzzle of her husband’s disappearance by asking help of Alan Smith (Peter Sarsgaard) an old flame from college who now works in a prominent position as an aid for Senator Hawkins (Alan Arkin). Acting on her behalf, Alan repeatedly tries to get the attention of CIA head Corrine Whitman (a chilling Meryl Streep) which results in the film’s best scene when fed up from unanswered calls, he confronts her in public to no avail. In addition to the main plot, another is interwoven back in South Africa as a teenaged girl (Yigal Naor) runs away from her domineering father (who is running the Anwar interrogation) to stay with her boyfriend as he begins to climb the ranks of a small sect of a much larger terror network responsible for the blast that killed Freeman’s colleague. If it sounds confusing, it is very much so as the film careens a bit out of control near the ending when the plotlines intersect and there’s a few jumps in time and place that will make your head spin.
The actors, especially Metwally are all very good, although Gyllenhaal seems far too young for his role, but ultimately, you’re left dissatisfied by an overly complicated finale that The Big Picture’s Colin Boyd noted leaves us to not only wonder “what happens next to so many of these characters,” but we’re also asked “to assume a considerable amount by the end.” It’s these loose ends and Rendition’s resulting air of mystery that doesn’t seem to fit the film’s tone as a think piece rather than a Clancy like thriller but hopefully, at the very least, it will get viewers talking about the tactics used to extract information and how reliable or moral they are in our global climate.