You might well imagine A Mighty Heart, where the torturers are the Americans and their confederates. But it is hard to imagine a hotter topic so tepidly dramatized.
Directed by Gavin Hood, the South African filmmaker who won an Oscar for Tsotsi, Rendition stars Jake Gyllenhaal as the conscience-stricken CIA op, Omar Metwally as the abductee, Reese Witherspoon as his very pregnant wife, and Igal Naor as the chief of the secret police.
A suicide bomb explodes in the casbah of a North African capital, killing several, including a CIA case officer. The agency's terrorism czarina (Meryl Streep) recommends "extreme rendition" of Anwar El-Ibrahimi (Metwally), whose cell phone has received calls from a known terrorist - or perhaps someone with the same name as a known terrorist.
On Anwar's way back to Chicago from Capetown, he is kidnapped in Washington, D.C., deleted from passenger records, and taken to a prison in that North African capital, where torturers try to extract his confession.
The story hopscotches from torture chamber to U.S. Senate office to Chicago suburb to casbah coffeehouse, every shift of focus defusing the explosive subject matter.
Kelley Sane's screenplay argues every side of the issue to the degree that it stands for everything and nothing. It says that torture is inhumane, but information culled from such practices have thwarted terrorist attacks. It says that counterterrorism breeds terrorism. Saying it is one thing. Getting the audience to hear it is another. The attempt to make a moral action movie results in what is mostly a moral inaction film.
Hood squanders the film's considerable starpower by failing to elicit sharp performances from his marquee names. Streep plays a generic company woman, Witherspoon a generic soccer mom, and Gyllenhaal a generic bureaucrat initially afraid to question authority.
One reason to see Rendition is for Naor's stunning performance as the torturer who is the one character aware of the political and moral contradictions of what he's doing. Every time he was on screen, he commanded it.
Rendition ** (out of four stars)
Directed by Gavin Hood. With Jake Gyllenhaal, Reese Witherspoon, Peter Sarsgaard and Omar Metwally. Distributed
by New Line Cinema.
Running time: 2 hours, 2 mins.
Parent's guide: R (nudity, graphic torture, profanity)
Playing at: area theaters
Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey
at 215-854-5402 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Read her blog, "Flickgrrl, at http://go.philly.com/flickgrrl/