Ham-fisted and high-minded, "Rendition" introduces us to a pregnant Chicago woman named Isabella El-Ibrahimi (Reese Witherspoon), who is awaiting the return of her Egyptian-born husband, Anwar (Omar Metwally), from a business trip in South Africa. But Anwar never gets off the plane.
Instead, the CIA, investigating a terrorist bombing in an unnamed North African country, takes him into custody for questioning and then begins to deny any knowledge of his whereabouts. It turns out that Anwar is a victim of "extraordinary rendition," a practice that allows the U.S. government to move terror suspects to undisclosed locations for indeterminate periods of time.
What follows is an old-school Hollywood "social issues" drama as thuddingly obvious as it is irresistibly entertaining. The story bounces back and forth across the Atlantic, following both newbie CIA agent Douglas Freeman (Jake Gyllenhaal) as he oversees the questioning and torturing of Anwar, and Isabella as she travels from Chicago to Washington, D.C., to campaign for Anwar's release.
But any movie that makes room for such magnificent scenery-chewers as Meryl Streep, as the brassy CIA boss who orders Anwar's rendition, and Alan Arkin, as a crusty old U.S. senator, can't be all that bad, right?
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Written by Kelly Sane, who created the fictional story after reading about extraordinary rendition in a February 2005 issue of The New Yorker, "Rendition" unfolds in brisk, compelling fashion.
The reason Anwar is being held is that his cell phone has received a series of calls from the terrorist the CIA believes is responsible for the bombings. But no matter how many ways Abasi contrives to torture him, Anwar insists he's innocent.
"Rendition" isn't especially interested in being provocative or challenging; if it were, Sane might have toyed a little more with the possibility that Anwar really is a terrorist, and that the CIA's practices might in fact be justified. Instead, as directed by Gavin Hood ("Tsotsi"), the film would much rather erect its own soap box and then self-righteously climb atop it.
The villain of the piece is Streep's Corrinne Whitman, a steely career analyst who won't allow her authority to be questioned even for a moment. With her curt line readings and her mouth pinched into a mask of sour-milk disapproval, Streep seems be consciously invoking those tough-as-nails ladies of the Bush administration, chiefly Condoleezza Rice and Karen Hughes.
As Hollywood continues to wrestle with how to translate current events and anxieties to the big screen, "Rendition" feels like a step in the right direction.